In addition to its admittedly impressive on-screen attributes, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” could pull off something even more marvelous: Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new series is so charming, so smart, and so exuberantly feminine, it very well could unite fans who are still raging over Rory Gilmore’s final four words and those who insist she should never speak again. Maybe, just maybe, everyone who watches can agree to leave Sherman-Palladino in peace to make a few more seasons of “Mrs. Maisel” before bothering her about reviving “Gilmore Girls” yet again.
OK, probably not. Though the world’s persistent demand for resurrecting nostalgia will keep revival chatter active for, well, forever, this new series is a worthy creative follow-up on its own accord. A period story looking at a generation of oft-ignored women, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” takes Lorelai and Rory’s comparatively subtle feminist message and amplifies it to a timely, cathartic, and insightful extreme.
Miriam “Midge” Maisel (played beautifully by Rachel Brosnahan) is a wealthy homemaker living in a palatial Manhattan apartment with her husband and two kids, but all that changes by the end of the first episode when she quickly becomes the former Mrs. Maisel. After spending 45 minutes laying out the life she’s about to lose (only to revisit it repeatedly via flashbacks in the following episodes), it’s eventually made clear what the audience is about to gain. Left by her husband for a newer model (his secretary), Midge finds new life in stand-up comedy. She’s exposed to a world she’s never seen before, people she’s never met, and problems kept out of her Upper West Side eyesight.
Shepherding her journey is Susie (Alex Borstein), the manager of a coffee shop that hosts various performers for late-night sets. Susie has an eye for talent, enough to know that when Mr. Maisel (Michael Zegen) comes in to perform “his own” comedy routines before the break-up, he’s not worth her time. But Midge very much is, a fact made obvious via her first drunken, confessional, post-breakup set. Susie and Midge meet up to continue the latter’s comedienne education, which is also helped along by “the best stand-up” in the city, a handsome fella named Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby).
Overall, the new Amazon series focuses on finding the “marvelous” in Maisel in spite of the “Mrs.” It’s not about a romance or a family or even a newly single mom — not really. It’s about how a woman’s dedication to marriage above self can bog down her potential. It utilizes its stories of romance, family, and a newly single mom to elevate women who have thrived despite institutionalized oppression.
The cliched nature of Midge’s failed marriage is not lost on her or the show — a husband leaving his wife and kids for his secretary? Even Don Draper did that. But she takes it as impetus for change, just as the series uses it as motivation for broader criticism. The cliche isn’t in place merely to move Midge from the repressed housewife she was to the accomplished talent she could be. It’s there because Sherman-Palladino wants to discuss why it’s such a cliche to begin with. And that means examining the ’50s male psyche (and how little its developed to this day).
The hubby Maisel is a peach so delicate a stiff breeze could cause permanent bruising. Abe Weissman, Midge’s father (Tony Shalhoub), is a stubborn, insistent head of household whose irritability stems from being coddled at home and out. The senior Mr. Maisel seems like a blend between De Niro’s Travis Bickle and his character in “Silver Linings Playbook” — in part because he always feels primed to blurt out, “You think you’re better than me?” but also because he’s played by impressionist extraordinaire Kevin Pollak. In other words, the men of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” are all controlled by their egos, and their egos need a lot of management.
Joel’s is the first to be checked, but the awakening women will likely prod their husbands and fathers’ delicate sensibilities more and more as the series progresses. That button pushing works because the male characters are fleshed out beyond their flaws. Shalhoub gives his barking father figure a caring, considerate side, and the rest also establish three-dimensional identities. Sherman-Palladino isn’t afraid to let them be empathetic, even when exposing their privilege.
But the series works overall because of Brosnahan. Much like “Gilmore Girls” would have struggled without Lauren Graham fully embodying the elaborate, rapid diction of Lorelai, Brosnahan hits the many beats thrust in front of her, again and again, without speeding past the humanity in her words. She’s not afraid to take a breath (giving Midge a few moments of poignant self-reflections), but she throws herself into the role with enough off-stage energy to make her outbursts behind the mic a believable, realistic release. Brosnahan has to be as marvelous as Midge for the show to succeed, and she’s exactly that.
If there’s one slight to the overall success, it lies in her sets. Through no fault of Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” struggles with the same affliction a lot of shows about stand-up comedy do: The stand-up itself isn’t very funny. But “Maisel” has two things working for it: First, its time period forgives dated material under the “it’s accurate to the setting” clause. Second, Midge’s sets are pleasant. She may not be funny, but she’s entertaining, and though some of what she says only reiterates emotional beats we watched play out in real-time, some of it is fresh and most of it moves the story forward. So while her routines aren’t that funny, they also aren’t boring.
Through four episodes, neither is the series. With a much-needed message for our times, a talented ensemble cast, and the period appeal of a “Mad Men”-with-a-feminine-flair production design, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is well on its way to becoming the next obsession for “Gilmore Girls” devotees. And if it can get them to stop talking about another “Year in the Life,” that would be the greatest gift of all.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” premieres Friday, November 29 on Amazon Prime.