Review: A Marvelous History

By Sarah Naiman

It is not often that a show wins eight Emmy awards in one year. Given its countless accolades, vast praise, and outstanding reputation, it is no wonder that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one of Amazon’s most successful television shows. These successes aside, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel stands out because of its fantastic period costumes and sets, fast-paced and witty dialogue, and ability to broach modern issues through a historical lens. 

The show’s protagonist is Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a young, wealthy, and beautiful Upper Westside housewife whose world is thrown upside-down after her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), an aspiring comedian and businessman, has an affair with his secretary. After refusing Joel’s apology, Midge finds herself in a downward spiral. Suddenly, she is on stage at the Gaslight Café, a downtown comedy club where Joel often (unsuccessfully) tested his new material. In a drunken rage, to the delight of the audience, Midge lands punchline after punchline, only to be hauled off stage by the police for her use of foul language. Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein), the manager of the Gaslight, is shocked and impressed by Midge’s performance, and bails her out of jail. This night begins Midge’s career in comedy; bolstered by Susie as her manager, she uses her time on stage at the Gaslight to process all the new changes in her life. 

In seasons two and three, we see a great deal of growth in Midge, as she commits herself to a career in comedy. Significantly, she again rejects Joel, and ultimately (spoiler!) abandons her season two love interest, Benjamin Ettenberg (Zachary Levi). Similarly, she gets a job working at the makeup counter at B. Altman. Significantly, she also tells her parents, Rose and Abe Weissman (Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub, respectively) about her decision to pursue comedy. After her rendezvous in the Catskills during season two, Midge takes to the skies in season three, as she is signed onto a worldwide tour with superstar singer Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain). All while managing two kids!

Midge encounters countless problems as an aspiring comedian, mother, and newly single woman in the early 1960s. Obviously, the odds are severely stacked against her. However, throughout all of her struggles and triumphs, Midge continues to serve as a reluctant feminist beacon. While the series opens with her serving as an ambitionless and doting housewife, she is soon forced to become independent. Moreover, while she initially sulks and resents this independence, when offered, she ultimately opts not to return to her life, as it was void of deeper meaning. Additionally, Midge uses feminist values through her many struggles with love. While she and Joel briefly reunite, she is unwilling to sacrifice her career to restore their marriage. Even when Benjamin supports her career in season two, she extricates herself from the relationship because she knows that she must devote herself to comedy. Another good example of feminist Midge is in season three, when she is hired to voice a radio ad for then-candidate Phyllis Schlafly. While Midge originally accepts the gig, with the help of her father, she ultimately recognizes the ad’s offensive message. As a result, she refuses to read the ad on air. In this example, Midge once again shifts from a reluctant to an enthusiastic feminist. Hence, while it is easy to write Midge off as a young woman who loves clothes and talks too much, beneath this façade, she serves a feminist trendsetter for her time.

In terms of historical accuracy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has a mixed record. While the clothes and set are often promoted as perfect period pieces, some viewers quibble with the ways in which the show examines historical race relations. While Midge has friends and colleagues across the racial spectrum, her frequent multiracial encounters are likely not realistic, given that segregation was still a prevalent issue. This aside, many believe that the show tells a story that reflects life as an early female comedian. It is widely recognized that Midge’s life is loosely based on that of a young Joan Rivers. Additionally, Midge’s female comedian rival, Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) is also believed to be modeled after Phyllis Diller, another pioneer of the field. Credibility is also added to the show through the use of historical characters and references. In particular, the presence of Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), a popular and controversial comedian in the 1950s and 1960s, gives the show historical grounding. Midge’s friendship with Bruce seems realistic, as Bruce was also a trailblazer in comedy. 

Overall, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is definitely a show worth watching. While the production of season four has been delayed, fans around the world are eagerly anticipating its release. The show may not exactly parallel real life, but it should still offer fans of history a (somewhat romanticized) glimpse into life in the 1960s as a pioneering comedian and feminist. Though Midge is a fictional character, she represents the many women who fought similar battles for equality, respect, and dignity during her time. 

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