The first season of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is television perfection. A successful blend of comedy, drama and social commentary, Amy Sherman Palladino and Daniel Palladino’s foray into the 1950s stand up scene told a compelling story in a strong authorial voice. The second season, which was released Dec 5 on Amazon Prime Video, mostly maintains that magic; but the expanded episode count (10 instead of season one’s eight) causes the narrative to drag in spots.
Previously, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel showed the dissolution of Midge Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) marriage and her subsequent dive into stand-up comedy. Season two picks up shortly after the finale, as Midge and her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) struggle to break into the mainstream comedy scene. Midge’s estranged husband and wannabe comic Joel is still reeling from the revelation that his wife is a better stand-up than him, but attempts (unsuccessfully) to move on with his life.
The second season’s scope is expansive — rather than root Midge in New York City, the Palladinos take the entire Weissman family to several distant and diverse locales. Paris takes center stage in the first few episodes, followed by a three episode stint at a Jewish summer resort in the Catskills. The cast spend the final few episodes bouncing around the east coast, eventually returning to New York.
This variety provides some fun locations but comes at a cost — season two is fragmented. The drama between Midge’s parents, Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose (Marin Hinkle), peaks in the Paris episodes, but slowly fades away until it feels like their arc meant nothing. True, Abe ends season two in a very different emotional state than he started, but it could have happened without the Paris diversion.
Most frustrating of all, Midge’s comedy career takes a back seat to lesser conflicts while she’s away from New York. Her burgeoning career is the focus of the show, it’s why I’m watching. I’m here to see an underdog rise become a star, to see Midge on stage, the brilliant beam of the spotlight making her eclectic outfits glow or listen to her bickering with Susie. The secondary stories are well structured, sharply written and frequently moving, but they’re given too much time and overshadow the central plot and the hook of the show.
Season one struck a balance between comedy and drama, but season two is often too goofy for its own good. Serious moments are undermined by silly skits — the Palladino’s retreat to a storytelling style that better suits a comedy, like Gilmore Girls. The worst offender comes in episode seven when Midge reveals her comedy career to her family at Yom Kippur dinner; every time she tries to speak, someone interrupts dragging her admission on for far too long and undercutting the seriousness of the scene. For a season and a half, I’ve waited for Midge to tell her family about her stand up career. Instead of a dramatic coming out, I was treated to an unsatisfying joke.
Even amidst these lesser jokes, it’s still evident that the Palladinos know how to write comedy. Characters who were infrequently funny become consistent sources of humor in season two. Abe becomes sharper and (somehow) more crotchety, regularly doling out one liners and quips. Abe’s adversarial relationship with Midge’s father in law Moishe (Kevin Pollak) has the petty juvenility of two children bickering on the playground, which coming from a couple of aging intellectuals creates a hilarious contrast.
Much of the humor plays off the characters’ Jewish heritage, but doesn’t resort to cheap stereotypes or cliches. Coming from a Jewish family, I recognized many of the quirks (read as neuroses) of my family and friends in the Palladino’s characters. Abe and Rose both feel like loving amalgamations of traditionally Jewish qualities. The pedanticness, the anxiety, the need to succeed at every menial task — it’s all there.
Season two also cranks up the color, further refining the show’s sense of style. Midge’s outfits are endless sources of wonder — her costumes have the same joyful intricacy of superhero jumpsuits. The broader aesthetic mirrors Midge’s costume choice — bright, cheery and captivating. Several scenes, many of them dance sequences, are lavishly lit and full of lengthy shots, immersing viewers in a late night waltz on the streets of Paris or moodily lit, but fast-paced dance in a Catskills gymnasium.
The Palladinos tackle social issues more directly this season, calling out the boy’s club mentality that persists in the comedy scene. Midge is repeatedly censored and belittled; attacked and chastised; underestimated and misunderstood. On the stage and off it, her life is full of naysayers and critics who judge her solely on gender. The refrain of “women can’t be funny” echoes throughout the season, but Midge (and by the Palladinos) systematically crush that long standing cultural myth. Midge’s extended on-stage monologue in episode two is inordinately satisfying, cathartic and thrilling; she struts towards the mic and castigates the male comics whose poor comedy and gross objectification gets an undeserved pass.
For Midge, it’s a victory (though a short lived one), and it’s a win for the audience too. Her speech reaches beyond the confines of the scene, addressing the real-world bigots who complicate the lives of women in media. Though the ease with which she conquers the comedy establishment is far from realistic, it’s an empowering interpretation of real-life struggles.
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season two may not be perfect — season one set an impossible standard — but it’s still a magical dramady and a cathartic thumb in the eye to bigotry.