The Marvelous Mrs Maisel review: women take on the man’s world of 50s standup comedy

Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new show centres on a housewife turned comedian. Plus, grumpy old blokes’ TV in The Channel: The World’s Busiest Waterway

Miriam Maisel – The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon) – has a pretty damn perfect existence. She’s smart and beautiful and lives with her handsome husband Joel in a massive apartment in a nice part of Manhattan. It’s right next to her parents’ massive apartment, so there is babysitting on tap for their two lovely children when they go out, which they do often. (Actually, the kids aren’t so lovely: the little boy is weird and the baby’s forehead is too big; they think she looks like Winston Churchill.)

When they go out, they go to a dingy club called the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, where Joel indulges his fantasy of becoming a standup comedian. He’s so-so at it – safe, unoriginal (literally, he nicks his material). Miriam – Midge – plays the diligent wife: cooking the brisket bribe to get Joel a better slot, making notes, counting laughs. At home, she waits for him to go to sleep before doing her nightly beauty regime, just like her mother.

But then one night after dying on stage (not literally, that would have been funny), Joel announces he’s having an affair with his secretary and he’s leaving. Midge necks a bottle of kosher wine, goes back to the Gaslight, grabs the mic herself. And guess what, she’s bloody hilarious – spontaneous and personal, original and outrageous – as we knew she would be from her wedding speech, which started this whole thing off. Hey, a funny woman, now there’s a thing. Especially in 1958.

Yes, TMMM, the baby of Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, is period drama, and the period is Mad Men quality. Take your pick – from the frocks, the soft furnishings, the cars, the songs, the smoke, the sexism – it’s all perfect, and catapults the viewer straight into late-50s New York. Real people show up, in person (Lenny Bruce is a character), on TV (it is Bob Newhart who Joel nicks his material from); all men, of course, everyone was back then, especially in standup.

Into this reality Midge stumbles, teeters and – increasingly – strides. That is the joy of Mrs Maisel, and Rachel Brosnahan’s fabulous performance in the title role: witnessing the transformation from good wife and nice daughter, self-weaponising through wit, spraying out lines from her Sherman-Palladino submachine gun like Lara Croft.

That and her developing relationship with Susie (Alex Borstein). Susie doesn’t live in a massive apartment or have lovely frocks; she works at the Gaslight, sees Midge’s potential, wants to manage her. She says she doesn’t want to be Midge’s friend, though by the end of the fourth episode (which is where I’m up to so far), that is starting to happen. And it’s lovely: the unlikely friendship, the working relationship, two women going to war in a man’s world, and winning.

That’s the good news. Less good is some of the other stuff. There’s a will-they-won’t-they thing about whether Midge and Joel (Michael Zegen) will get back together, with rueful flashbacks to happier times in their marriage. It might have been interesting if you wanted them to reconcile, or if he was less of a drip, but I didn’t and he isn’t. Unnecessary goo. And the squabbling parents and in-laws are familiar to the point of tiresome. When they’re around, the humour reverts to familiar sitcom fare. “Mama, for the love of God will you please stop crying in that bedroom,” Midge shouts, after telling her parents that Joel has left. In the background, Mum crosses the corridor and carries on crying in another room.

“Yeah, that’s better,” says Midge, sarcastically. To her mum, but it could be to her creator, because it’s not.

Don’t let that put you off. It’s flawed, uneven, occasionally lame. But the good bits are very good – mainly when Mrs Maisel is doing her thing: being funny and being a woman, at the same time. Hey, who knew?

***

Someone I was talking to at Channel 4 the other day explained the scheduling of The Channel: The World’s Busiest Waterway. Apparently, the only people not watching I’m a Celebrity on the other side are grumpy old blokes, so this is when they put out their grumpy old bloke’s television.

Making me a grumpy old bloke, because I think it’s brilliant. There’s a behind-the-scenes look at the Dover coastguard, updates on the regulations for preventing collisions at sea, a ride on – followed by the unloading of! – the longest container ship in the world … A bit more thrilling than posh Toff having a bikini shower in the jungle, isn’t it?

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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