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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel may be set in 1958, but its witty, angry heroine is timeless

From the creator of Gilmore Girls, Amazon’s new show stars a spitfire housewife who takes on standup comedy.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Rachel Brosnahan gives a thrilling performance as the marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Amazon

In most anyone else’s hands, getting drunk, stumbling onto an open mic stage, and sputtering confused outrage about getting dumped just hours before would be an undeniable low point. But in the hands of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, this moment feels like the giddy swoop of a roller coaster taking an exhilarating plunge at the end of an arduous climb.

“There are so many questions spinning around in my head,” Miriam “Midge” Maisel says into the mic to a bewildered but intrigued crowd. “Why did he leave? Why wasn’t I enough? And why didn’t they put the stage over there against that wall instead of over here by the bathrooms so you wouldn’t have to hear every giant bowel movement that takes place in there?!”

It’s more of an exasperated observation than a real joke, but the audience laughs anyway — and not just because it’s 1958 and Midge is a drunk housewife standing onstage in a frilly blue nightgown. Standing up there in the spotlight, her inhibitions having followed her wayward husband out the door, Midge is working through a moment of clarity with a refreshing elasticity that also feels sharp. And that combination is what makes both her and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel thrive.

Over its first eight episodes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Midge (the marvelous Rachel Brosnahan) struggling to reconcile the fact that she did everything she’s been told a nice Jewish girl needs to do to succeed with the fact that her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) left her anyway. But the series’ better story is that Midge’s quick wit and wicked smile make up her rare talent for keeping people’s attention. And as the comedy club’s most ambitious employee, Susie (Alex Borstein), tells her after that messy outpouring, Midge could perhaps put her skills to good use outside the circle of her family, temple, and polite parlor parties by becoming a professional standup comic.

It takes some convincing — Midge was, after all, a bottle of kosher wine deep when she performed her first accidental set. But once she commits to becoming a comic, she commits completely, taking as dutiful notes on potential punchlines as she once did on her own carefully calibrated waistline.

At this point, it may not surprise you to learn that Midge — a plucky brunette heroine with a penchant for talking especially fast — comes from the mind of Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls and some of TV’s brassiest broads. As the creator of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Sherman-Palladino also wrote and directed several episodes. Her whiplash-inducing banter feels right at home in Midge’s 1958 New York City, and Brosnahan — as well as Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s perfectly cast parents — really shine.

(Not for nothing, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel living on Amazon also means we get to hear what Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue sounds like uncensored — which, especially coming from Borstein as Susie, is a treat.)

If The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel were merely a show that gave Sherman-Palladino free rein to play in her screwball sandbox, its chronicle of Midge’s double life of maintaining a perfect home while perfecting a 10-minute comedy set in dark clubs with Susie would be a perfectly amusing watch. But there is something else about this show that kept me thinking about it long after its jaunty, pink-hued credits rolled. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t just here to laugh and have fun; it needs to blow off some serious steam.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is at its best when its heroine unleashes improper hell

Over time, Midge learns how to hone her voice from the freewheeling rambling that got her foot in the comedic door to create a more pointed, polished set that showcases her knack for making a club of East Village weirdos care about her pristine life on the Upper West Side. There are plenty of stumbles along the way, for both the character and the show; for all Sherman-Palladino’s writerly talents, she is not a standup comic, and it shows when Midge tries to deliver a series of jokes that are essentially (very funny) anecdotes rather than carefully crafted setups and punchlines. But when The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel gives its heroine room to abandon her sense of propriety and indulge the white-hot resentment lurking underneath, it can feel like an electric shock to the tightly girdled system.

While Midge loves being the center of attention — a fact the show cops to from the first minute, when it opens with Midge giving her own wedding speech — the reason she’s drawn to performing as a comedian is that it gives her a space in which she can be herself. When she was married to Joel, Midge regularly stole away from bed in the middle of the night to put her hair in curlers, then woke up before dawn to apply a full face of makeup so he would never see her as anything less than perfect. Onstage, she ditches all pretense of being a neat little housewife to become all too human in her imperfections. And people love it.

In Maisel’s seventh episode, for example, Midge has been doing well enough as a standup that she sells out the club in which she first melted down. But after a harrowing meeting with Sophie Lennon, the most successful female comedian in the business (played by Jane Lynch), and getting a public dressing-down from her mother, Midge isn’t in the mood to tell jokes about her parents splitting their twin beds apart after she catches them having sex. She’s in the mood to burn everything to the fucking ground.

“[Sophie] gave me a piece of advice,” Midge announces to her audience, pacing the stage like a restless lioness. “She told me that no one would find me funny unless I do some big wackadoodle character — or have a dick.” But then, clutching the mic and dripping with fed-up disdain, Midge reveals exactly how powerful she can be just by being herself: a woman with anger to spare.

“Why do women have to pretend to be something they’re not?” Midge seethes, to growing applause. “Why do we have to pretend to be stupid when we’re not stupid? Why do we have to pretend to be helpless when we’re not helpless? Why do we have to pretend to be sorry when we have nothing to be sorry about? Why do we have to pretend not to be hungry when we’re hungry?”

Because after years of measuring her ankles and playing hostess, Midge isn’t just hungry. She’s starving, and she’s done pretending otherwise.

That hunger is why she strutted back out onstage after most anyone else would have chalked up her first attempt at comedy to a regrettable, alcohol-induced meltdown, eager to say her piece. It’s why Susie seizes the opportunity to work with Midge, whom she recognizes to be talented, telling Midge with wrenching insistence that she doesn’t want to be “insignificant.” It’s why the two women band unite to bring Midge’s uninhibited new voice, that of the marvelous Mrs. Maisel, to emphatic life.

On its face, this show is a solid new entry in the Sherman-Palladino pantheon of wisecracking heroines and the assorted people who love them. But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is also a stellar showcase for a woman unleashing her full fury and potential in a way no one — least of all herself — saw coming, or will soon forget.

The eight-episode first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.