Why do we even do it – this whole TV thing?
Why did Philo Taylor Farnsworth create a little box that could accept radio waves and translate them into moving images? Why did advertisers start handing money over to TV providers? Why did AT&T acquire Time Warner for $85 billion earlier this year and immediately put a plan in place to create a massive streaming platform to match Disney’s equally enormous one?
Sometimes the purpose of televised (and now streamed) episodic entertainment feels difficult to pin down. There’s so much of it now that it all just kind of exists as a persistent white noise in the background, Then something like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel rolls around and you realise “Oh yeah! This is why we do this whole TV thing.”
Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is a beautiful and seemingly effortless feat of episodic storytelling. The series about a 1950s New York housewife becoming a standup comedian comes from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. Season one debuted at the tail end of last year, injected some excitement into the holiday season, and then more or less faded out of pop culture until it won approximately 9 trillion Emmy awards in September. At the time of the show’s Emmy domination, Amazon Prime had weirdly not even announced a release date for season two yet. Sherman-Palladino told reporters that she had been assured season two would still air in 2018. Sure enough it’s now here with all ten episodes debuting on the 5th of December, and it’s glorious.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s first season ends with Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) fully embracing her talents and destiny as a stand-up. She had just successfully roasted “character” comedian Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) into oblivion and with the help of legendary comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) had returned to the 1950s New York stand-up scene with aplomb.
Intriguingly, instead of pursuing the thread of “Mrs Maisel – Comedy Superstar,” season two pulls back a bit and continues to focus on Midge’s ascent, rather than success. This is smart in a practical sense because news of a hot young comedian would likely travel relatively slow in 1959. Not only that but ‘overnight success’ isn’t much of a thing for a woman in comedy during any era… particularly an era set one year before the beginning of Mad Men. There is still work to be done.
On a creative level, keeping Midge grounded pays enormous dividends. The show is able to pick up right where it left off both from a storytelling perspective and a tonal one. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel season two is very much the Marvelous Mrs Maisel that we all (and the Emmys) grew to love but better. It’s more refined, creative, experimental, and wildly hilarious. It’s also more expansive, with episodes taking place in both Paris and the Catskills.
Every aspect of the show continues to work in perfect harmony. The writing is top-notch, quick-paced at witty but somehow avoiding the Sorkin curse in which every character sounds like a writer. The characters of Mrs Maisel from Abe (Tony Shaloub) and Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle) to Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen) to Susie (Alex Borstein) to the Mrs, herself, are all highly verbal but funny in their own believable ways.
The acting always rises to the quality of the script. Borstein remains pitch perfect in her role as a diminutive talent agent and argumentative transient. She has a plot in episode one that is among the funniest things Borstein or the show has ever done. Zegen makes a character likable who would normally be seen as annoying at best and a villain at worst. Joel’s relationship with Midge continues to evolve in season two in frustrating yet utterly believable ways.
And while we’re talking about Emmys… as a TV nerd in the early 2000s, I was annoyed to watch Shalhoub win Emmys year after year for his work on the precious, if inoffensively decent Monk. Consider all those Emmys retroactively earned and throw him a few more while we’re at it. Abe Weissman is the TV dad we deserve and need right now. Shalhoub delivers the following line in the first episode in perfect, Shalhoubian fashion: “Then we’ll have a conversation about loyalty! Loyalty to the person who signs the checks. Not the person you like more… AMERICAN loyalty!”
Then there’s Rachel Brosnahan. If we hadn’t already seen her talent tragically wasted as ‘Beguiling D.C. Hooker #4’ or whatever those awful House Of Cards scripts called her, I would have sworn there was no such thing as “Rachel Brosnahan” and that Sherman-Palladino did some sort of blood ritual to have Midge Maisel actually pop into life off of the page. Brosnahan is beyond perfect. She simply… is. She’s Midge Maisel – funny, beautiful, charming, and weird. The show can’t possibly work without her. And when it works with her, the results are stunning.
During season two’s first five episodes, Midge has no fewer than four extended monologues in the form of standup sets. Each and every one is hilarious and utterly captivating in its own way. Every episode comes to a grinding halt (in a good way) every time Midge ascends to a stage. Each set is believably funny, markedly different from the last, and somehow thematically perfect for the episode surrounding it. They’re among the most astonishing feats of television writing in recent memory. The synergies between Brosnahan’s clear talent and the show’s writers makes each one feel like a celebration of standup comedy and a sort of sermon from the pulpit at the Church of Television.
And that’s the thing: this is such a TV show. Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls was in many ways at the forefront of the changing levels of expectations that we have for television. Right around the era of boxset DVDs for TV shows and right before the dawn of the streaming era, Gilmore Girls operated on multiple levels. It could be watched carefully, or merely in passing. It could be binged, or be the subject of live watching parties every week with friends. In season two, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel operates in a very similar fashion. It’s entertaining and charming enough to simply be enjoyed but also rich enough to be appreciated. After the end of the fourth episode, you almost subconsciously look around your room for the DVD from Blockbuster containing the next four.
Consequently, as a TV show, Mrs Maisel’s only weakness is that some episodes are simply better than others. The first two episodes of the season are remarkable while the third and fourth are merely great before picking up steam once again in the fifth. That’s just going to happen with ten-episode seasons. Season two has upped the episode order by two but despite the slight quality disparity early on, you can pry those two extra episodes from my cold, dead hands.
While Mrs Maisel season two is in many ways the consummate TV show, perhaps its closest spiritual cousin in pop culture might be Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Both projects are improvements on their already great predecessors, offer a warm but also realistic perspective on New York City, and are filled to the brim with infectious joy and enthusiasm for the art of storytelling, itself.
Why do we do this whole TV thing? So we can watch stuff like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, of course.
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel season 2 arrives on Amazon Prime on 5 December. And if you’re looking for more things to watch, click here for the full list of what’s new on Amazon Prime this month.