It’s easy to get lost in the world of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”), who has a knack for building specific, live-in worlds, has created a saccharine, candy-coated alternate-universe 1950s-era Manhattan full of luxurious spaces and gorgeous clothes. From the affluent uptown enclaves to the smoke-filled downtown clubs, the city crackles with a neon buzz.
You want to get lost in this world. You want to snag a table at the Gaslight and catch a set of Mrs. Maisel’s latest material, or slide into a booth at the Stage Deli and take in the circus while you devour a pastrami on rye. You imagine you too could drop everything and get away to Paris for a few weeks, or summer in the Catskills.
It’s an escapist fantasy, made all the more fantastical by its protagonist, Midge Maisel. Midge is an up-and-coming female comedian trying to make it in a male-dominated field. Rachel Brosnahan sparkles as Midge, a plucky, sharp-witted and self-assured comic who refuses to be intimidated by her male peers, who consistently underestimate and disrespect her.
Where season one saw Midge dipping her toe into the standup world, season two of the Emmy-wining series, which premiered on Amazon last month, sees her confidently diving in head first to pursue her dream. With manager Susie (Alex Borstein) at her side, she’s booking more gigs and honing her craft with every new set.
The season opens with Midge dealing with the fallout of her ex-husband Joel catching one of her sets. While last season ended with the prospect of the couple reconciling, that door seems to close as Joel (Michael Zegen) admits he’s not strong enough to let his wife tell jokes about him onstage. However, that insecurity doesn’t mean he’ll stand in the way of her dream. Joe realizes how good she is and, to Midge’s surprise, encourages her to go for it.
Even when he’s being a mensch, Joel is a drag on the show. The addition of Zachary Levi’s Benjamin (“Chuck”) as a new romantic interest for Midge gives her an opportunity to move on. Benjamin, a smart, progressive-minded guy who likes “weird” girls, is a good match for Midge.
Midge’s parents, meanwhile, are too busy with their own relationship troubles to be bothered by their daughter’s drama — at least for the first part of the season. Feeling trapped in her Upper West Side existence, Rose (Marin Hinkel) flees to Paris. Initially oblivious, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), chases after her. Soon, the two get caught up in a bohemian ex-pat lifestyle that helps to rekindle their romance. It’s a strong subplot that allows Shalhoub and Hinkel to flesh out their characters beyond being Midge’s overbearing parents.
The season closes with Midge getting a tremendous opportunity and realizing she must make a fateful decision between her career and her family. It’s a bittersweet note to end on; even as you know what her decision will be and hope she makes it, you know it will change everything.
Beneath all the relationship drama and farcical humor, lies the show’s strong feminist politics. They manifest as a sort of wish fulfillment, as Midge upends the gender expectations of her era. When confronted with sexism and misogyny, Midge never backs down. A scene this season where she tears into a pack of sexist male comics during her set is supremely satisfying.
Still, the show reminds us there are limits to her power. In another episode, a club owner yanks her off stage mid-set, telling her pregnancy is too offensive to discuss onstage. Another owner refuses to pay her, and locks her manager Susie in a closet. It’s only after Joel arrives to rough him up that they get their money.
Still, for as much as it takes on 1950s sexism, the show is less interested in examining the race and class issues of the day. Midge’s wealth and privilege are barely scrutinized against, say, Susie’s lower economic status. And while black characters exist around the edges, the show demonstrates no awareness of the extraordinary struggles African Americans faced at the time. Perhaps next season will dig deeper with the apparent addition of African-American performer Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain).
It’s a minor criticism of an otherwise terrific show. In fairness, one show can’t do everything. The show’s escapist fantasy is maybe somewhat undermined by such blindspots, but that’s often the nature of escapism — the nagging feeling of knowing what you’re escaping can often be unsettling, even as you get lost in the fantasy.