The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
An Amazon TV series review by Dr. Lloyd Sederer
My back was acting up and I was getting a cold. It was well into the evening with bedtime a bit away. Pharmacology was not doing much, and losing myself in War and Peace or a Bergman film seemed too painful. I needed a non-pharmacological pick-me-up.
Ads around New York City had promoted a new Amazon TV series, and it was getting some good chatter. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Free too - with Amazon Prime. I tuned into its opening episode. I don't know if you have to be Jewish to love this show, but it helps. On the other hand, my wife (not Jewish, not even raised in NY) immediately took to it. How could you not?
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel transports us back to 1958 - to NYC, the upper west side, the garment district, the Village, and the interstices of family life. But it is not just a period piece, a sit-com, by any means. We have here a coming of age story about a 20-something graduate of an elite women's school outside of Philadelphia, who is bred to be a perfect, upper middle-class wife and mother. So much for breeding, though she has very good posture and manners. There is a lot more to her, and it explodes comically onto the screen, catalyzed of course by misery. The kind that comes from your husband running off with his bubble-headed, young secretary.
What's a woman to do, short of pills and liquor? Stand up. Stand up to what was ignominy back then (still is today) and dare to get on a stage in a Village dive and do stand-up before a crowd of critics and kibitzers, who are ready for you to bomb. Stephen Colbert has written about the cleansing and compelling power of bombing. It is what gives a comic steel and drive.
But Miriam (Midge) Maisel (a luminous, beautiful and very funny Rachel Brosnahan) does not bomb, at first. She is too raw from her life and great at improv, spinning comedy from her plain old, quotidian unhappiness. She has plenty to say and it is a riot. After two episodes, I was her fan and hooked on the series (eight episodes) ready to ride the narrative waves ahead. Let's just say they aren’t very pacific but are the ingredients for the delectable material delivered by the show’s brilliant, tart, comic writers.
Midge’s parents are all too familiar to me. Dad, Abe Weissman (pitch perfectly played by Tony Shalhoub) is a math prof at Columbia, given to tweeds and moral soliloquies, full of bluster yet easily tamed by all in the family. Mom, Rose, (played with equipoise by Marin Hinkle) is stately and stern, but as a Jewish mother, her kids always come first. Joel Maisel (a tough role well rendered by Michael Zegen) is Midge’s husband, a bit spoiled and a papa’s boy. He too soon begins his coming of age, lubricated by pain. His folks run a garment factory right out of NYC lore. His dad, Moishe Maisel (a super performance by Kevin Pollack), has plenty to say but in the end, is a sweetheart and will do what is right for his family. His mom, Shirley (a buxom and nervous Caroline Aaron), hovers and frets, and is like so many of my aunts and my mother’s friends that I have known. Midge and Joel have two small children, to add to the mish-mash of their lives.
A big nod needs to go to Susie Myerson (bravo for Alex Borstein), who goes from being the manager of the Gaslight Café in the Village, where Midge gets her stand-up start, to being her professional manager. Susie curiously is the glue pasting the story and the ensemble together. And there is the inimitable Lenny Bruce (played with bent neck and drole by Luke Kirby), who punctuates the story-line and adds his own great comedic contribution. Jane Lynch from Glee makes a brief, terrific, comic cameo appearance.
My favorite episodes are numbers 2, 7 & 8. Their sheer tragi-comic pitch is irresistible. Though start with #1 to enter at the right moment. This story of a woman not just coming of age but bursting into an identity to be applauded is timeless and touches our hearts.
So, in this season of holiday, winter or other blues, if you are looking for the best medicine, namely laughs and inspiration, go meet Mrs. Maisel.
Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist and public health doctor. The opinions offered here are entirely his own.
His next book, The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs, will be published by Scribner (Simon & Schuster) in May, 2018.