TV & film

Finding your calling is no joke on ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’

23 Mar 2022 | Written by By Carolyn O'Donnell

[Show images are courtesy of Amazon Prime Video].

Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel is an impeccably groomed warrior princess. Instead of spears or arrows she deploys firm foundation garments and chic tailored suits. Clasping a martini in her manicured hand she conquers new realms. She might spend a lot of time thinking about shoes and statement headwear, but she’s a fighter, and her weapons are words. 

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is mostly a series about finding your voice, but it doesn’t overlook the importance of a great hat. Midge – portrayed in all her perkiness by Rachel Brosnahan – first skipped onto our screens in 2017, but in the Maiselverse it was 1958. For most women of that era a successful life looked like husband, children and a guest room. 

Appearances are everything and when we meet Midge, she’s a glamourous housewife on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with a formidable wardrobe. She commands a tight domestic ship, and measures her thighs daily to make sure nothing is expanding in an unseemly manner. Life is successfully mapped out in her privileged bubble, until it’s punctured and she tumbles out. 

With 20 Emmys and counting, the show is a beautifully designed, directed and acted homage to a romanticised vision of mid-century New York life where capes make sense and there can never be too many bows. It’s a deliciously candy-coloured souffle, balancing drama and comedy, an engaging tale of showbusiness that gives some sense of just how far from marvellous the struggle to make your mark in entertainment can be. 

Central to the show is the relationship between sassy Midge and her manager, the scrappy Susie. Played by Alex Borstein, the character was inspired by Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers. Both Jewish women, but from very different backgrounds, Susie is the earthy yin to Midge’s frothy yang. When Midge saunters off to the Catskills for a two-month summer vacation, Susie stays in the city’s baking humidity where she’ll sweat and smell like a bum and be miserable and want to kill people and ‘do that till it gets cold’. 

Less important is Midge’s relationship with her husband, which crumbles like an overcooked brisket. Her marriage ending is the beginning of an important transition. Midge stops supporting her husband’s desire to perform – he’s desperate rather than talented – and realises she can take the stage herself. 

Midge discovers a passion for stand-up comedy and encounters an exciting but tough and sexist world. There are parallels with the late Joan Rivers, a comedy pioneer in the Sixties who had a long career (and attended the 2005 wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles).

It was tough for female comedians then. Fast forward six decades and comedy is still a tough gig for women

Sophie Lennon, an abrasive fellow female comedian in the show – played by Jane Lynch and loosely inspired by Phyllis Diller – states at one point that women trying to be funny on stage need a persona, whereas men can just be funny as themselves. As a performer, Diller was part deranged housewife, part cackling clown, but significantly she was a character deemed non-threatening to men. 

Not that all men have it easy. Lenny Bruce, a character in Mrs Maisel and a real-life iconoclast, had just as much trouble with the law as the show depicts for speaking his mind. Bruce died of a drug overdose in 1966 at the age of 40. In Season 4 the character plays Carnegie Hall, which the real Bruce did in February 1961. He’s a mentor to Midge, giving her validation she doesn’t receive from her disapproving relatives.  

Midge’s elegant mother Rose doesn’t understand her daughter’s new career, equating stand-up with prostitution. Their thinking aligns on virtually nothing, except as Rose says, ‘how precarious a woman’s life is when it’s dependent on the whims of a man’. 

Realising she no longer wants to live as a satellite to a man – no matter how suitable – is another transition for Midge. When presented with both a marriage proposal from a handsome surgeon and the chance to go on tour with a famous singer, Midge doesn’t even have to think about which one she wants. The lightning bolt that strikes her illuminates the way to comedy, not casseroles.  

Midge takes the opportunity to open for Shy Baldwin, loosely based on Johnny Mathis. But trying to win over the largely African-American audience at the renowned Harlem Apollo theatre when you’re white enough to be seen from space leads to a calamitous error of judgement. Cue another transition when she realises she needs to be authentically herself – and have the power to do so.

It’s not easy. As Midge says: ‘It’s the bras. And the girdles. And the corsets, all designed to cut off the circulation to your brain…’

Amy Sherman-Palladino is the woman behind The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, previously best-known as a driving force behind Gilmore Girls. With Mrs Maisel, Sherman-Palladino said she wanted to do a show about a woman on a journey, who finds a calling and a need to express herself that she didn’t know she had.

Committed to sparkling pop culture-laced banter and gleeful misunderstandings where characters talk at cross purposes, Sherman-Palladino’s big set pieces exhibit a joyful sense of movement informed by her background as a dancer. A plotline in Season 4 pays tribute to the theatrically feathered and largely lost world of American burlesque.  

Always captivating, Mrs Maisel also taps into a longing to be more than what we are. As Midge evolves, her ex-husband, her father, and even her reluctant mother, all discover gifts they didn’t know they had thanks to a combination of desire and necessity. 

It was a long wait – more than two years – to find out how Midge coped with colossal disappointment at the end of Season 3, and whether this had dimmed her flair for accessorising. Season 5 has been given the green light, which will be the show’s last season. It will be sad to say goodbye to Midge, but we can’t wait to see the final instalment of her adventure. 

Season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Have you watched ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’? Or has this article inspired you to give it a go? Let us know in the comments below!

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