How The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel gilds the 1950s and gets away with it
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the rare show that would be almost as enjoyable muted as it is with the sound on. Before you reach for the remote, though, that is absolutely not a recommendation — the second season, which hits Amazon on Wednesday, is as hilarious as ever — but a kudos to the team. Mrs. Maisel establishes its own version of 1950s New York through a swirl of textures and colors, and every swing of the camera presents further reasons not to look away.
Critics, though, are quick to point out that Midge's world never really existed. "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is part of a revisionist trend in dramas about female stand-ups that are smart enough to eschew blatantly anachronistic enlightened social opinions," wrote the i of the show's first season. "Of course, back then there were no real-life women doing the equivalent of Midge's stand-up act, which pushes far beyond the self-mockery of Phyllis Diller or the wisecracks of the young Joan Rivers," NPR points out. For all its period-specific details and real-life inspirations, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an exaggerated fantasy — only, it doesn't ever pretend to mirror to reality.
Its delights lie instead in the fact that audiences can enjoy Maisel's highly-stylized parallel universe without it ever lulling us into believing it is real. Instead, the picture-perfect sets of Mrs. Maisel result in a kind of uncanny valley, like how old Hollywood studio sets designed to look like New York only somehow highlight that they're not. Even the based-on-real characters in Midge's orbit emphasize Midge's fiction — Lenny Bruce might have really existed, but not her.
One of the most wonderful things about the show, its movement, heightens this disregard for realism. In the second season, the choreography is dizzyingly acrobatic: A montage of Midge's club appearances spools together three different shows into one twirling appearance. Other times it is the characters themselves swirling around each other in a scene, like when Susie impossibly weaves through a crowd of hula-hoopers or when Midge is passed man to man in a dance. An almost Wes Anderson-like airing of a country cabin is particularly memorable. These flourishes, both in the editing room and on the set, have inspired a number of reviewers to call Mrs. Maisel about as close to a musical as you can get without, well, Midge bursting into song. Also like a musical, we suspend our disbelief to enjoy the show on stage.
That's not to suggest the show is oblivious. Midge's manager, Susie, will point out the show's fantasy by openly remarking on her client's charmed life. "Where the hell are we, Versailles?" Susie splutters upon walking into Midge's grand Upper West Side apartment in the first season. Susie is the dash of real life thrown into the show to exaggerate the contrast; her apartment is amusingly tiny, and she actually has to think about things like rent and long distance calls. "I'm picking up half-eaten apples outta trash cans at the Port Authority," she throws back at Midge as emphasis at one point. And when Midge announces she's going to the Catskills for two months and asks Susie what she does over the summer, her manager replies: "I stay here and I sweat and I smell like a bum and I'm miserable and I want to kill people and I do that until it gets cold." Relatable.
Like the trash and pigeons absent from the perfectly manicured streets of New York City, antisemitism and racism are also practically absent from the world of Mrs. Maisel. Even sexism only gets glancing references, usually before Midge stubbornly intervenes. Mostly, though, Midge sails through her version of the world uninhibited — her children are always miraculously taken care of, and she relies on her charm and looks to get her out of any predicament. Reality was not as marvelous; in 1959, the same year Maisel takes place, historian Leonard Dinnerstein writes that "more than 30 Jewish institutions in the New York area [were] daubed with swastikas and racist slogans" and "telephones threats had been made, and ... the windows of Jewish businesses ... broken." Racism is also greatly unacknowledged.
But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn't so much a sanitation of the past as it's creating its own world, as foreign and magical and unbelievable as Game of Thrones' Westeros. And by giving its audience the frequent nod, a reminder of its own construction, it remains brilliantly self-aware. As Jewish Boston puts it, Maisel is "completely detached from most women's reality, unapologetically so. It's pure entertainment, pure escapism." That doesn't make it quite fluff, though — it is, ever subtly, a commentary on the very things it omits. We can only enjoy Maisel's fantasyland through our active suspension of knowing better.
Still, there are plenty of people who will look back at a period like the 1950s with rose-tinted glasses, gesturing to it as a time when the country was better and when values were different. Maisel, thankfully, never allows itself be such a tool. It is the show's own winking depiction of the era that makes it so much fun.