Rachel Brosnahan plays Midge Maisel.

It took me at least a month to get through the first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Watching Mr. Maisel go through his excruciatingly bad comedy routines, as the viewer had to do repeatedly early in the show, was hard to endure. And a host of other small problems plagued the comedy-drama. The whole emprise, for example, made Woody Allen seem WASP. But it was a Sherman-Palladino production, friends said they loved it, and the lead actress is fun to watch. So I plodded through, a few minutes every other day or so. And got to the end, where it got good.

And then I binged all the way through the two seasons up on Amazon Prime.

The show is fun, but has . . . “issues.” As notes Rachel Lu:

There’s a scene in Season Two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that perfectly encapsulates the show’s central conundrum. Margaret (Midge) Maisel, our 1950’s-Jewish-housewife-turned-comedian, has finally gotten a gig at a semi-respectable New York City club, somewhere on the way to midtown. She shows up in her trademark black cocktail dress, fresh and beautiful and raring to go. Unfortunately, her act gets pushed back repeatedly as confident male comedians breeze in to claim her spot. By the time Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) takes the stage, it’s late and the audience is drunk, while she herself has completely lost her feminine charm. She’s sweaty, angry, and mildly intoxicated, sporting mustard stains on her sexy dress. Storming the stage, she abandons her prepared act and launches into a meta-discourse on comedy, and the suitability of women to participate in it. Comedy, she says, is about pain and rejection. Who understands these things better than women?

“Mrs. Maisel’s Mixed Messages,” by Rachel Lu, Law and Liberty (February 8, 2019)

Everybody understands pain, at least as it pertains to them. Telling other people that you know pain more than they do must be demonstrated. And made funny. The breakout rant described above is not comedy, and funny only because filled with invective. It is also not quite believable, because both too defensive and offensive. It is a manifesto Mrs. Maisel delivers. Or “womanifesto,” if you must. But it is only funny for the insults.

The story of the show is this incredibly peppy, “privileged” woman, married with two children, who almost never takes care of her children. Her parents and her wayward husband and a series of nannies do that. Her parents are wealthy. How they got this way is never quite explained. Her father, played by Tony Shaloub, is a college professor of mathematics. This was not a lucrative career path then or now, not without a government grant (which actually occurs as the story develops). Her mother dresses to the nines in every scene, and comes across as an heiress. But that information, if imparted to the viewer, missed me. Her husband (who leaves her in the first episode) works for his own father in the family clothing factory. Yet the young couple and the old live in vast, multi-room apartments elegantly decorated and filled with books and bric-a-bracs and elegant, 50s-era appliances.

The pain she experiences is not poverty.

The rejection she experiences is from her hapless hubbie alone.

And of course, only barely mentioned in one scene, there is a background pain — giving birth to her children, whom she almost never sees or touches.

This is all some weird sort of fantasy. And some of the fantasy is feminist.

One thing not quite confronted is why male comics were then and are now more common than female ones. We see two “famous” comics in the show: Lenny Bruce, who was a real man and most people say was funny, but whose work has not made me laugh in the past, but which isn’t bad re-created here; and “Midge’s female nemesis, Sophie Lennon . . . a crude hack recycling years-old material.” Neither of them strikes me as especially driven by pain or rejection.

A decade ago, the “gender” issue in comedy became a hot topic. The upshot from the men, whom I believe (and not the feminists, whom I do not), was that men are funnier than women, on average, because men need to amuse women while women do not need to amuse men — men like women even if they are not funny.

Rachel Lu, in the review I link to above, notes the theme of comedy and pain, and Midge Maisel’s insistence that does she know both. Neither seem plausible.

Her lips say “I belong on this stage,” but the show’s creators seem to be signaling something else. Before the lady comic was permitted to claim her microphone, she was forced to morph into a smelly, angry, drunken slob. In other words, she had to be un-womaned before practicing the comic arts. Was it freak happenstance? Or is there some deeper truth here? Can a good woman also be a great comedian?

This re-gendering is perhaps dramatically necessary because men understand the function of comedy, and, well, maybe women do not. Or, more likely, feminists do not. As in the old joke: “‘How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘That’s not funny!’” The point is, it is men who understand rejection on the receiving end. The evolutionary setup is fairly clear: women find advantage in making themselves as attractive as possible to as many men as possible, and rejecting all but the very best of those that want them. Men tend not to reject women as routinely. This basic truth undergirds all comedy. The comedy landscape in the show seems a tad misleading. We are being misled. We are being Mrs. Misled (sorry about that).

Of course it is not that women cannot be funny. It is that they have less incentive to be. There are good female comedians. Just like there are good male models. But the evolutionarily stable strategies do not stack the deck in either favor, and aren’t most male models gay?

So, what of the men in Mrs. Maisel’s world?

As in previous Sherman-Palladino creations (The Gilmore Girls and Bunheads), the men on this show share one possibly-unrealistic quality: they reliably take notice of witty and talented women, and find these qualities sexy and alluring. In general, Sherman-Palladino’s men are judged by two criteria. First, can they handle their manly business, as professionals and members of society? Second, can they handle their women? Sherman-Palladino dramas have no mercy on men who are too weak to match the objects of their affections.

This is very much a fantasy, but, alas, with no unicorns.

Or, one — our unicorn, Midge, a funny Jewish woman who claims to that pain and rejection feed her art but whose experience is quite different: a charmed life right up until the first, almost-unwatchable episode. But her magic seems more plausible as we get sucked in, as the fantasy picture show does its magic.

twv

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