There is a new show on Amazon, and it is marvelous. Miriam “Midge” Maisel, played by Rachel Brosnahan, is a prototypical 1950’s American housewife. She is devoted to her husband, close to her parents, and perhaps a dutiful mother. Joel Maisel, played by Michael Zegen, is not a company man. He aspires to freedom. He wants to be his own man, so by day he plays the role of an executive Vice President in his uncle’s plastic company—a job his father secured for him after Joel declared his independence from his father’s dress factory. By night he lives out his dream by taking the stage at a Village coffee house called The Gaslight Cafe.
In these efforts, Midge is Joel’s girl Friday. When Joel is unlucky in securing a good stage time, his wife is ready with a brisket to smooth the way forward. Once on stage, this man, lusting after freedom, manages to pry a few laughs from the audience by delivering a bit he stole from a Bob Newhart album, and Mrs. Maisel observes the audience and takes notes on timing, reception, and delivery. She is Joel’s most enthusiastic supporter, and even when she discovers his theft of another comic’s material, she defers to his judgment. At night, he drifts off to sleep, and she readies herself for bed and beauty in their Upper Westside apartment, which, unbeknownst to her, belongs to Joel’s father. Where Joel suffers in this life, Midge seems to radiate contentment. She feels needed; she feels wanted; she feels desired. In a word, she would describe her life as perfect.
The texture and colors of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” are rich and bright. It is as if Midge’s world is gilded in a golden, heavenly light. Her greatest tribulation seems to be winning back the good grace of her rabbi. From the outset of the series, Midge is a self-assured, intelligent, and self-aware woman. This is why, as she makes a speech at her own wedding, peppered as it is with humorous tidbits, her audience—the show’s audience—realizes that she is in no way a victim. She both accepts and rebukes authority as she sees fit. Tradition is as important to her as it is dispensable, so when she jokes in the last line of her wedding speech that “Yes, the egg rolls have shrimp,” it is not surprising that she immensely enjoys the chaos she provokes in her more devout Jewish guests. The real crux of this show, of course, is that chaos; it is the havoc wrought by the failed attempts to conform to “traditional” expectations of propriety. Where these expectations seem to be the attempt at real-life perfection and the engine of a proper life, underneath all this shiny chrome is real life—imperfect and harsh.
When Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign asked voters to elect him to “make America great again,” he and his 21st century clone—Donald Trump—were really asking Americans to come back with them to a time when the texture and colors of American life were rich, bright, and gilded in a golden, heavenly light. What their supporters and defenders of traditional propriety seem to forget is the utter fantasy and superficiality of this world. Midge defined her life by linking it to her husband, but when he, in a fit of rage over a failed outing on stage, leaves Midge, blames her for his failures, and confesses to a long-term affair with his secretary, Midge’s life isn’t so much destroyed as it is cracked open. For the first time since her wedding day, Midge’s future is entirely her own. Of course, in the immediate aftermath, she is hurt and sad. When she runs upstairs (her parents live three floors above her) to tell her parents that Joel has left her, they, especially her father, places the blame at her feet, and this is precisely when Midge begins the process of disillusionment.
In a drunken fury, Miriam Maisel rushes from her building in a downpour, dressed only in a nightgown, and rides the subway downtown. Downtown, the Village, these are the places in the city where respectability is lacking, and Miriam’s initial impulse is to descend into that absence of respectability, which she does with aplomb by charging the stage at The Gaslight Café and performing a set that releases the toxicity of that evenings prior events. He comedy is raw, but it is also honest. While she is self-assured on the stage, she also remains vulnerable. It is this combination of honest vulgarity and novelty that draws her audience to her, and it is the energy from the audience that propels her forward. The highlight of this moment is her arrest for obscenity and indecent exposure. Yup, that’s right, the crowning moment of her first ever routine was the baring of her breasts, and wouldn’t you know, the establishment has some sort of problem with that kind of lewd demonstration.
By the time Miriam sees the inside of a courtroom, she has been arrested a second time for obscene and lewd behavior. On the night she discovers that her apartment is not hers and she gets caught in a robust family argument, Midge flees the confines of her uncomfortable life to once again vent her anger by taking the stage at The Gaslight. It is in court though, when the judge demeans her entire sex and pontificates on the virtue of virtue, that Midge, for the first time, breaks her façade of respectability to chide the judge and promptly land in jail for contempt of court. She eventually finds freedom again by paying the fine and apologizing to the judge by fulfilling the expected stereotype, but in that moment, she also realizes her own power.
Miriam’s manager Susie, played by Alex Borstein, is also her guide into the real world. From the moment we first see Joel on stage, we see Susie’s disapproval of him as a hack. Susie is an expert. She is a kind of oracle of comedy, and she has identified Miriam as the next real, raw stand up. When Susie first visits Midge’s apartment, she takes us on a wonderfully funny tirade that systematically dismantles class and privilege. Susie is gruff, direct and consistently mistook for an “angry little man”. Like Miriam, Susie has something to prove to the world but not to themselves or each other.
Ultimately, the gritty, vulgar, and real is not just a life that bums, aspiring comics, or truth tellers live. No, not at all. The secret of course, is that we all live in the same trash dump, the same gutter. This is why a reality that conforms to a simplistic and illusory set of moral and social axioms is derisively exclusive and primarily destructive to human life. This is also why Mrs. Maisel is so god-damn mother fucking wonderful!