“Mrs. Maisel” is still marvelous in its anachronistic unreality

In Midge Maisel's carefree fantasy, she tours with a black band sans era-accurate unpleasantness. S'wonderful!

By Melanie McFarland
December 6, 2019 9:00PM (UTC)
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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)

It’s the '60s, man, and Midge Maisel’s career is finally taking off. Early in Season 3 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) is being escorted to an Army base to perform in a USO holiday show, part of her touring with R&B star Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain). And aside from a few logistical flubs that aren’t at all atypical for anyone hitting the big time for the first time, she kills. The boys in uniform love her. Shy is entirely charmed. Midge looks as professional and polished as the high-kicking precision line dancers who open up the show.

One is to presume that said dancers are supposed to be the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, I’m guessing. I hesitate to attach that brand name to the kick line show here because it features several women of color within its ranks, and The Rockettes didn’t welcome its first black performer before 1987.

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Most “Mrs. Maisel” viewers won’t notice such anachronisms on that level of detail, making it simple enough to give series creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino a pass in that regard. Other moments within the five episodes provided for review are a little tougher to overlook, like the flashback scene showing the malt shop where Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen) proposes to Midge and a trio of black women, a do-wop group, grabbing a table behind them and spontaneously harmonizing behind the couple’s dialogue.

Moments later, as Joel charms Midge with a traffic-stopping display to prove his love, one of the black women happens to be standing right by Midge. Convenient because without looking at the woman or asking her permission, Midge shoves something into the hands of this total stranger. And the black woman takes the object sans question or protest, facilitating Midge’s Doris Day-style “marry me” moment.

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Three seasons is enough time for a series to familiarize the audience with its singular style and set a level of expectations. True to form, Season 3 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” reconnects us with the stardust-spangled adventures of Midge and her manager Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) as Mrs. Maisel gets her first big break. This in itself injects a strain of excitement into the story that eluded the second season. At last Midge gets to travel for her career instead to save her family her parents marriage or to take up time.

As for trips with Shy and his band to Las Vegas and Miami, the cities covered in the episodes provided, Shy’s songbook is incredible, and McClain is a magnetic performer. Brosnahan’s joy and light are as infectious as ever, and she and Borstein rocket through Sherman-Palladino’s lithe and clever dialogue as effortlessly as ever.

Season 3 s’wonderful, s’marvelous.

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Aren’t all of Midge’s adventures, though? Every moment, even the cringeworthy ones where she’s bombing, somehow finds a way to sparkle and exude unfailing optimism. Surely Brosnahan deserves a significant amount of credit for making her character’s irrepressible pep palatable and imbuing her crisply choreographed witticisms with naturalistic flair. She didn’t win that 2018 Emmy for nothing.

Even when she flirts with spicy sin, as happens in this season by way of a few chemistry-tipsy scenes with Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce, or brushes against potentially hair-raising scenarios, the Palladinos present these moments within the confines of a harmless, midcentury comedy version of risk.

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Susie is never truly in peril either, not even when thugs show up at her door in the second season or, in these new episodes, she witnesses a mobbed-up Vegas casino owner slap an employee silly in an adjoining office.

To know these certainties is to understand, if not completely accept, why “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”  chooses to portray Midge’s jet-set tour with a black musician and his mostly black entourage in the early 1960s as full of wise-cracking exchanges but devoid of the sorts of dehumanizing humiliations such performing groups actually would have faced.

You don’t have to know that during that era, Las Vegas was so blatantly segregated that it earned the nickname of the Mississippi of the West. But if you’ve seen enough movies that are honest about the period, you probably know that during the ‘50s and ‘60s black performers were barred from staying in the hotels and casinos where they were contracted to perform, and were often forced to enter and leave through their kitchens.

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Even Sammy Davis Jr. was denied residence at the Sands in the early 1960s until Frank Sinatra raised a stink with the management. The reality of entertainment industry history, especially the chapters concerning glamorous Hollywood, is full of such nasty tales.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not based in history, though. It barely approximates reality. This new season really, really reminds us of that.

Yet when Midge received the call from Shy Baldwin at the end of Season 2, I wondered whether the Palladinos would address, how shall we put it, the logistical challenges Shy and Midge would face as a black man and a single Jewish woman traveling together in the early ‘60s.

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Admittedly I didn’t ponder this for very long, because this is not a show and the Palladinos are not creators that traverse any emotional realms beyond discomfort. Ergo, the worst that Midge and Susie – and Midge’s father Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) and mother Rose (Marin Hinkle)– experience is discomfort.

In this new season, Abe and Rose made life-altering decisions that significantly impact the level of privilege to which they’ve become accustomed. Susie, meanwhile, contemplates accepting a potentially lucrative offer from comedy superstar Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch), and even Joel is inspired to take a leap into creating his own destiny by opening a nightclub. Midge’s ambition is rubbing off on her loved ones in terrific ways.

Simultaneously, within the hours provided for review – and it must be stressed, the full season was not available to evaluate, maybe this will all be explained later! – you never witness Shy or his musicians being barred from using the front door at the Las Vegas casino where they’re performing, or being confronted by security as they cross the casino floor. Neither Midge nor Susie witness Shy, his manager Reggie (Sterling K. Brown, one of the season’s biggest delights) or any of their traveling companions being subjected any type of unequal or unfair treatment.

Everything is wonderful, everything is marvelous, because nothing can be anything else than lovely and heartwarming in the universe of “Mrs. Maisel.” That’s why you don’t see the mobster casino boss tossing anyone in a trunk for a one-way drive out to the desert, either.

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Understand, friends, that I am not saying that these new episodes should have been “Mississippi of the West, But Burning!” The great value of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” at any time, and especially during the holidays, is its determined devotion to creating a glamour-laden fantasia with bite. Casual inclusion is part of this. For the Palladinos, creators of the very white Stars Hollow of “Gilmore Girls” fame, the extended focus upon Shy’s performances and the sight of a private plane packed with Shy and the band, making Midge the minority for once, it counts as evolution.

For that matter, so does Joel’s new relationship this season with Stephanie Hsu’s Mei, who is linked to the building where his new nightclub is located. Hsu’s charisma carries her role and shores up Zegen’s performance, even though there are a few scenes that make a person yelp, in the spirit of the engagement scene where Midge recruits a black bystander to serve as her porter so she can enjoy her movie moments.

All of this leads a person to wonder, maybe, what obligation series producers have to depict with even the slightest bit of honesty the harsh realities of not only existing during a specific point in time and history, but of working in a specific industry. The entertainment industry was, and is, sexist and racist; the difference is that back then few people were in a position to do anything about it on a systemic level, or desired to. Any changes or protests were local, as with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. at The Sands.

Choosing to gloss over these jagged truths can have the side effect of reinforcing a version of a happier, more innocent illusion of a trouble-free yesteryear that never really existed. In these days of people consuming more entertainment, asking fewer questions about which parts of it are accurate feels especially dangerous.

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The Palladinos and the cast may rebut that this is Midge’s story, portrayed from Midge’s perspective. If her view of the world is rosy and relatively free of social conflict aside from the misogyny she faces in her pursuits, acknowledging anything outside of that window would ring false and compromise the narrative integrity.

So: “Mrs. Maisel” may be a period piece, but it’s an unapologetically sanitized one. Where series like “Mad Men” obsess over the era- specific accuracy of the smallest facets of the production, this one assumes we’ll overlook the largest ones in the story. Because why collapse the meringue?

In essence, the unspoken contract between the makers of “Mrs. Maisel” and the viewer is they’ll spin us a gorgeous musical theater-style confection to rival the best of Golden Age cinema and Broadway smushed together with all the passion of a well-earned onstage smooch, and we’ll swallow it and smile.

In return, you know, maybe we can ignore or refrain from closely interrogating the consistent demonstration that the series only chooses to handle with the airiest, slightest touch, one “ism” at a time. Maybe one and a half. Racism, anti-Semitism, each is unpleasant on their own. Together in one series? Now there’s a recipe for tsuris, the surest.

You may have noticed that even feminism isn’t explicitly named. Rather, we’re to think of it as an offshoot of the main character’s pluck and the witty weapon she uses to battle sexism in the name of forwarding her own career.

For when it comes to her comedy ambitions and her extensive talent, Midge Maisel’s determination, energy, and ambition are as boundless as Susie’s vocabulary is creatively filthy. She bombs, suffers setbacks, and she’s made some enemies.

She's still privileged and only starting to understand now naïve she is about the relative affluence from which she still benefits. (Oh, to have an entire room in which to store my dresses! Heck, I’d settle for a whole closet!)

But she gets right back up on her well-shod feet and charges ahead, embodying some postcard version of feminism without actually uttering that “F” word.

And despite these massive blind spots, the show occasionally reminds us that it is in some ways tethered to reality. Glimpsing the employee being physically abused in the manager’s office is its way of clueing in Susie and the audience that its writers acknowledge bad things still happen in this world. Digs at Susie’s androgynous appearance, too, exemplify another prevalent prejudice and presumption men and women who refuse to conform to specific image expectations had to face (and still do).

Generally speaking, though, the worst bits of life happen to somebody else far, far away, out of frame and earshot and mind – not in this glitzy, carefree Vegas or Shy and Midge’s subsequent stop in lovely, exotic Miami. Susie gets that message, as do we.

Later, thanks to Borstein’s impeccable comedic acting, she even parlays her shock at the slapfest into a visual gag we can all giggle about. Just as simply, she rolls her eyes or shoots off a flawlessly deadpan punchline each time she’s mistaken for a man.

And “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is one beautiful cosmetic makeover of a life and ignores a whole lot of other unpleasant realities associated with that time period. In the third season, depending on who you are, that can be difficult to do.

But it assumes that we should know by now that it is a highly stylized comedy, not a drama or a horror movie, and definitely not about any movement, past or present.

It’s about song and dance and lightness and fashion, presented through the limited view of one delightfully funny woman. Her journey away from society’s expectation that she resign herself to a domestic life and toward the realization of a career goal that she now realizes is attainable.

In the end, never forget this is Midge’s dream. We’re just touring with it.

"The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" Season 3 is currently streaming on Amazon.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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