One of the most extraordinary moments in the pilot episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is when our hero, Miriam Maisel, and her husband of four years, Joel, kiss goodnight and crawl chastely into bed. Miriam (or “Midge” as she is often called, though I’d rather not), waits until Joel is asleep, at which point she tiptoes out of bed and into the bathroom. Here, she goes through a routine of setting her hair in rollers, washing off her makeup (including removing her false eyelashes!), and slathering what is almost certainly supposed to be Pond’s Cold Cream on her face. On her way back to bed, she raises the window shade about two inches–a move that seems meaningless until the next morning, when Miriam is awoken by the first rays of sunlight hitting her eyes. Once again, she creeps out of bed and essentially reverses the routine of last night–unpinning and brushing out her hair, rinsing and making up her face, putting those damn false lashes back on. She slips back into bed moments before Joel’s alarm starts buzzing. He shuts it off and turns to his wife, waking her with a gentle kiss. She slowly yawns and smiles beatifically at him. “Did the alarm go off? I didn’t even hear it,” she murmurs.
This show is about a fierce, intelligent woman finding strength in stand-up comedy after her marriage falls apart. What I was expecting, knowing that synopsis, was for Miriam to be an understandably bored and unfulfilled housewife who finally gets a chance to break free. But she doesn’t appear bored at all–in fact, she seems to relish her day-to-day routines: visiting the butcher, cooking a brisket, tending her home and family with warmth and interest. She’s a Bryn Mawr graduate from a well-off family, but gives no indication, at first, that she ever wanted anything more than to settle down with a nice man and having a few kids. And this is what awed me about her late-night beauty routine: Miriam performs it so matter-of-factly, showing no trace of resentment at upholding the charade. (You can’t help but consider the logistics: in four years, have she and Joel never had a reason to wake each other up in the middle of the night?)
It’s actually quite a refreshing take. Miriam is having a feminist awakening, but she doesn’t necessarily dislike her conventional lifestyle; she just has something more to say that might have always lain dormant if Joel never left. Having moved into her parents’ home, she gets her first real job so that she won’t have to rely on them for money. She stumbles across a protest in the park and is incredibly moved by the spectacle and power of it, though she knows nothing about the issue the protest is about. In the current world, where it feels like we all know more about the political process than a democratic citizenry should need to, her relative naivete is a pleasurable haven.
Mrs. Maisel was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the woman behind Gilmore Girls. I couldn’t get into Gilmore Girls when it was originally on, partly because I found the dialogue too ridiculous–who talks that fast and with that many cultural references? (I know that Gilmore Girls is a beloved show and I’m largely alone as a thirty-year-old woman who doesn’t care for it.) But in 1950s New York, that chewy, saturated dialogue style works. The family dynamics are rich and dramatic, with everyone bringing their particular brand of angst to the table and getting beautifully upset over minor insults. We find an easy antagonist in Joel, who has abruptly left Miriam for the most pedestrian of business-guy reasons (no spoilers, but you can probably guess). Alex Borstein is perfect as Susie, Miriam’s foul-mouthed and perpetually pissed-off manager, whose bad attitude is softened a bit by her jaunty suspenders and newsboy cap.
The show isn’t perfect. It incorporates issues of race into its construct, but in a watered-down way that feels like the writers are trying to tick the Woke box rather than significantly advancing or enriching the story. And when Miriam makes disparaging jokes about other women’s bodies–fat women in particular–it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to be laughing grimly at her very of-its-time internalized misogyny or laughing at a solid joke. As for the fact that she kind of accidentally becomes a stand-up comedian, without years and years of bombing repeatedly in front of bored, sparse crowds? Well, to be fair, there are only eight episodes, but you kind of wish that things would be more realistically difficult for her.
It’s a dense show, though, and these are very minor complaints. Throughout the first season (and they’re booked for a second!), we get to watch Miriam find her way and hone her craft, all while wearing 1958’s most luxurious coats and hats. With its delicious period details and plenty of stunningly awkward moments, it feels like a blend of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Mad Men, and Veep, and I am extremely here for it.