It was quite by accident that I discovered The Marvellous Mrs Maisel – this period comedy/drama from 1950s USA, on Amazon Prime. It’s about Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, who is the ideal Jewish wife in every way. She has had the same body measurements since college. She follows an excruciating beauty regime every night without her husband finding out about it. She supports his plagiarised stand-up comedy routine. In every way, she is, just like her briskets, perfect.
We are introduced to Midge at her wedding, where she gives a charming and funny speech. Her life turns her into a homemaker and a mother of two. Since she is from a privileged background, she has great support from her nanny as well as parents. All this is snatched away from her when her husband Joel leaves her one night, for his secretary.
Women are taught to make their lives revolve around the men in their lives. Keeping in mind that the show is set in the 50s, the situation is even worse. Many women, just like Midge, never have to face the question “what am I going to do?”
Within hours of being left by Joel, she gets drunk, becomes an instant hit as a stand-up comedian at the almost poetically named Gaslight Café and is promptly arrested by the police for using profanities and flashing her breasts. Her spontaneous and hilarious rant is taken as stand-up comedy because of her natural wit and the audience breaks into thunderous applause as the police drag her away.
While supporting her husband’s stand-up ventures, she has turned it into a study of jokes and laughs, which she notes down in a pink notebook. Little did she know that she would be the one actively using it.
Mrs Maisel’s humour is something of an enigma even to herself.
Suzie, who works at the Gaslight, sees this and decides to become her manager. She wants to hone the raw spontaneity of this performer. Suzie comes from a wildly different world. She lives in a minuscule house, is physically different from Midge’s classic good looks and has no patience for social niceties and etiquette.
The only thing they have in common is sarcasm and an appreciation of humour. That and the fact that they are both open enough to accept the other’s differences. Suzie learns that she cannot be all-business if she wants to be a ‘personal manager’. Midge learns to accept the realities of life and to come out of her privilege bubble.
Midge’s stand-up may be funny, but the interactions and conversations in the show are even funnier. Her parents have their own breakdowns when they learn that her marriage is over. Her mother seeks solace with a psychic, whereas her father loses himself in Maths, of which he is a professor.
When she decides to work at the make-up counter of a mall, her mother is appalled at having a working daughter. Her father in his own way tries to warn her about how she will have to go to work even when it rains. “I told you to pick a practical major, Russian literature is not a practical major,” he tells her off.
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Her relations with her brother, sister-in-law, the married couple that she and Joel were friends with, her in-laws, are all brought out in a realistic but humorous way. All of the characters are independently developed and make the series more colourful in their own way.
A clever tactic of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is that it shows Midge is far from perfect. She’s only ever been a daughter, student, wife and mother. She doesn’t know what being bad at something is like. After Joel leaves, she struggles with her personal and professional setbacks.
She fails at stand-up occasionally and tries to blame the audience for being non-receptive. As an upper-class woman who has never had to work, she often needs to be shown that others do not have all these privileges. Throughout the show, she conveniently forgets about her children and dumps her mother with childcare duties whenever the nanny doesn’t show up. “Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a mother“, she laments in one her performances.
There are many wonderful moments in the show. When Joel asks Midge to take him back, she defiantly says no. When he asks why, she simply says, “because you left“. This clarity of thought in a woman from the 50s is inspirational for modern women too.
Through her comedy, Midge breaks all the taboos that she was bound by.
Midge pushes Suzie to open up to her, as the two bond over burgers and fries. At a stand-up show of another comedian, Midge is diligently taking notes about his timing and pauses when he suspects her of copying his act for another male comedian. “What makes you sure it’s for a male comedian, and not for myself?” she asks him furiously.
Mrs Maisel’s humour is something of an enigma even to herself. Her most successful performances are when she is under the influence and has something to rant over. “Spontaneity works until it doesn’t,” says Suzie.
Through her comedy, she breaks all the taboos that she was bound by: she mocks her husband’s mistress, talks about sex, questions motherhood and does not hold back graphic language. Most of the conversations keep the tempo up with subtle and outright jokes. In their own different way, everyone is funny.
One thing missing from The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is the presence of non-white characters. Nevertheless, it has many positive things about it. Multiple well-developed female characters, crisp dialogue, calling out subtle sexism, etc. There are many little lessons to be learnt from this show. The most important one being: women are f***ing hilarious.
Featured Image Credit: Backstage