Truly Marvelous: Mrs. Maisel

This is a post I write with hesitation and shame, as I abhor Amazon and Jeff Bezos for profiting during this pandemic at a pathologically disgusting level, earning billions when his employees are not adequately cared for, when he has put so many people out of business, including independent bookstores, and as the richest man in the world, has an unconscionable amount of wealth when billions of people in the world do not have enough to eat. Unfortunately, a vital item I needed urgently could only be purchased through Amazon; hence, I received a trial of Amazon prime, as I did earlier when I was a student. I also have ethical qualms about paid, streaming TV disproportionately getting nominated for awards, as it means that only those with the means to afford it can watch these acclaimed programs or films.

Thus with these disclaimers, I must confess that I am a huge fan of the program “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is both revolutionary and retro at the same time. It is nothing short of brilliant, even with its flaws and oddities. It is one of the best modern examples of pure entertainment that I can think of in recent years that engages the viewer with gorgeous visuals, first-rate acting, good humor, and a gripping story. It is the very definition of pure entertainment, something so pleasurable to watch with humor, song and dance, family drama, romance, and ambition.

The production design and art direction are simply stunning. The colors pop vividly on the screen (would that I had a big-screen TV!), the clothes are enviably elegant, every detail is flawless and seemingly appropriate to the time period. As the viewers, we get the sense of what it was like to live in the late 50s and early 60s, when American life was prosperous and booming, yet ready to tear open at the seams socially. There is an irreplaceable sense of style that we have lost in our crass, modern, Kardashian world. I have always been a huge fan of movies from the late 50s and early 60s, largely because of the visual appeal and style of clothing.

Needless to say, the acting is first-rate. The all-star cast is virtually flawless, there is no character who is a weak link. There are of course some standouts. Title actress Rachel Brosnahan’s impeccable timing, snappy dialogue, moxie, pep, youthful beauty, and good cheer coexist with her delicate stature and vulnerability, her willingness to push boundaries, rendering a multi-faceted character we cannot take our eyes off. Tony Shalhoub as her father Abe is a complicated man, whining, irritated, emotionally difficult, yet curious and slightly boyish at times. Jane Lynch as Sophie Lennon is unbelievable: her crass, Phyllis Diller-esque stage persona contrasts with her absolutely chilling, manipulative, patrician status in real life, and it is remarkable how one woman can play such opposite characters so convincingly. And finally, there is Susie Myerson (who alone is worth the price of admission). Sarcastic, grumpy, hilarious, like a butcher version of Rosie O’Donnell, yet incredibly loyal, this character is arguably one of the best TV characters ever, and certainly like no other. I have long been a fan of Alex Borstein since her MADtv days, and she brings an elusive quality to the character. What are her motivations for supporting Midge Maisel so fully? Why does she dress as she does, and what is her sexual orientation? Why is she so militantly unsentimental? Emotionally complex, disturbed, outspoken, driven, we never know how Susie is going to react to something–there are plenty of things that surprise us about her, such as her love of bubble baths or children. She says the things that we dare not say in public, and her character is so fun precisely because she is so badly behaved. Alex Borstein has addressed her characterization of Susie in interviews, for those who wish to read more.

The story is absolutely fascinating: an affluent New York housewife with beautiful children and a handsome husband has a talent for stand-up comedy, and decides to pursue it, against all social mores of the day and against her proper Jewish family’s wishes. On the one hand, this is a classic pre-feminist story, about a woman’s drive to make a career for herself at a time before it is acceptable. On the other hand, it is what writer Christopher Castellani might call an alternative reality history (as per his lecture on this topic at my MFA program). Midge Maisel did not really exist, she did not interact with Lenny Bruce or other luminaries of the period. Amy Sherman-Palladino is a brilliant mind and writer (along with her husband Daniel Palladino, who also directs, and the other excellent writers) who has created a most engaging story, for we want to see how a young woman might have done in such a difficult, male-dominated profession. It is a show about comedy with a lot of comedy, and the dialogue harkens back to the age of great Hollywood screwball comedies, with zingers a mile a minute. It is refreshing to see a female protagonist in the arts who is trying to make it while holding her personal life together.

Of course no TV show is perfect, though this one comes close. Where it flounders sometimes is in the storyline. At times, it can feel a little bit as though the writers are making the story up as they go along. For example, it was certainly an unlikely move that Midge’s mother would suddenly up and move to Paris. Midge’s father has, oddly, taken up with Communist beatniks. There are also a few things that are little bit too familiar or clichéd. Joel Maisel’s parents are almost a little too stereotypically Jewish, especially his mother, who is the classic overbearing Jewish mother, complete with raspy voice. The scenes in the Catskills recall “Dirty Dancing.” Sometimes there are detours and plot threads that are unnecessary and feel like they are there to fill the time. And finally, given that everything is so perfect and era-appropriate from the makeup to the music to the furniture, the ending songs that always play over the credits are incredibly jarring since they are modern. Would that they changed this annoyance.

Nonetheless, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is nothing short of enjoyable for all (preteen and above) ages. It is truly a brilliant concept that is well-executed and feminist in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head with being feminist. Most importantly, it is a bright spot in a time of such turmoil in America and the world. The origins of the word entertain are in the root of “to hold”–I am completely held and mesmerized by this wonderful series, marred only by the fact that it is produced by the evil empire of Amazon.

We Love Lucy: The Enduring Comic Genius of Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball is the best female comedian America has ever known–or rather, one of the best comedians America has ever known. Why so? Why do we love that crazy redhead even half a century later?

-She was willing to make a fool of herself. Any true performer knows it’s not about ego, that one has to let go of the self in order to completely inhabit the character and to serve the text and the spirit of what is being performed. Lucy was willing to go there, be it saying things she wasn’t supposed to say (think the episode where she had to tell the truth for 24 hours), physical comedy, or making a complete mess of things. Carol Burnett also has this gift, as do Jim Carrey and Alex Borstein, among others.

-Related to the point above, pushing the limits. “I Love Lucy” featured an intercultural marriage, and one with a husband with a strong accent from a country that later became America’s number one enemy. It featured outrageous situations, such as international travel, drunkenness from a health tonic, or faking the ability to speak Spanish. The show was also set in New York City and then later Los Angeles, not in suburbia. Ricky lived the showbiz lifestyle and their beloved neighbors and friends, Fred and Ethel, had been vaudeville performers. The show makes good use of the medium, and was also the first show to be recorded live in front of a studio audience. That speaks to the talents of the cast, who were essentially performing a play in each episode.

-Excellent writers. The script for each episode is nothing short of brilliant. In less than half an hour (22 minutes), an entire microcosm of a story with rising action, climax, and dénouement is created. A start-to-finish story, perfect dialogue, and even cross-cultural humor are included. Note the occasional lapses into Spanish by Ricky Ricardo that heighten the comedy. Couple this with sharp timing all the actors involved, and you have a recipe for success. It is important to note that one of the key writers for the show was a woman, Madelyn Pugh, a rarity at that time.

-The battle of the sexes. Political correctness can fail to simply acknowledge that this is a human situation as old as mankind, and that relations between men and women are sometimes downright hilarious. Whether it’s Lucy forgetting to relay a message to her husband, buying something she shouldn’t have, Ricky excluding her from an event, Fred and Ethel’s eternal squabbles over his cheapskate nature, this is something that men and women can relate to not only in America, but all over the world.

-Glamour. No one can deny that the crisp black-and-white cinematography, elegant Dior-esque dresses, or romantic songs at the club are just a little more chic than what the rest of America had. Ricky Ricardo is certainly handsome, New York is the epicenter of style, so who wouldn’t want a little panache on the screen? The cast travel cross country, move to Hollywood, and travel in Europe. These were things that were still out of the reach for most Americans in the 50’s. Good TV over the years and even today fulfills this purpose, giving us a little bit of glamour and something just beyond our reach. Think “The Cosby Show” and their upper-middle-class Brooklyn life, “Sex and the City” with the women’s endless designer clothes and nights out at chic lounges, or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with stunning art direction and costume design. There’s something to be said for visual escapism.

The show has mass appeal as it its themes are universal and simple. Even my grandmother in India had enjoyed it! Everyone has a favorite “Lucy” episode. Mine is when Lucy’s mother-in-law arrives from Cuba and Lucy is not able to speak with her in Spanish. She enlists the help of a Spanish-speaking magician she saw in the club and wears an earphone into which magician dictates what she should say to her mother-in-law. Naturally, it backfires with hilarious results.

What’s yours?