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.

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!