The Not So Marvelous Mrs. Maisel2
I might have mentioned that the only series previous to Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that I had binged was Mad Men. Well worth the investment for to this day I contend it was the best drama series ever created for American television for reasons that have been enunciated over the years by better writers than me. Mad Men was recommended to me by my long suffering Senior Vice President In Charge Of Anger Management and for that I owe her. As an aside, I always recommend that medium sized businesses retain a Senior Vice President In Charge Of Anger Management as a means of nipping intramural squabbles in the bud, like “Bob in accounting really has my dander up…”. Unless of course, like me, your Senior Vice President Of Anger Management is too busy containing her own rage. Kind of counterproductive. The point is that In Mad Men they didn’t need such an executive because everyone knew their place.
This is not the case in Season Three of Mrs. Maisel, the measly eight episodes of which I binged over the last week or so. This was more of a homework assignment than a passion. Whatever enjoyment I derived from the surprisingly freilach frisson of Season One and parts of Season Two, has been lost thanks to the new Hollywood force feeding viewers, like crated veal calves, inclusivity and diversity tropes, no matter how inappropriate for a series, as in Maisel’s case, set in the fading light of the Eisenhower administration. As I might have mentioned in a previous post, I am locked into Amazon Prime’s biggest hit to this point if only to have semi-meaningful conversations with my daughter. Otherwise I am shocked over how few people I know who are into the Mrs. Maisel conversation.
When we left Midge Maisel in Season Two she had been invited by a crooner loosely based on Johnny Mathis named Shy Baldwin to accompany her on his European tour as an opening act. Though we might have overlooked this idiotic idea in all the excitement we felt for Midge back then, (how many years ago?) in hindsight it made zero sense for a Jewish girl from the Upper West Side to be traipsing around Dusseldorf etc.making Rosh Hashanah jokes less than fifteen years after the liberation of Auschwitz . We’re not even going to talk about the fact that in Europe sixty years ago most locals spoke no English. This idea is as stupid as her doing that set in some Paris nightclub last season which sent off a smoke signal of absurdity, albeit Galoises smoke, that most of us missed but was to be a hint of the rails off which creator Amy Sherman-Palladino would be taking this show in the future.
The first episode opens with a very expensive set piece that adds absolutely nothing to the story but looks terrific as Baldwin performs on a military base somewhere in the five boros or the wilds of New Jersey. Certainly close enough for Midge to run home and change her dress prior to her ‘set’. The art direction is rich and recalls Bette Midler in For The Boys while a dance scene in the base “canteen” is a muted tribute to a similar number in Penny Marshall’s now classic, but period correct, A League Of Their Own. This was the late 50s and kids were doing The Stroll on American Bandstand but apparently the armed forces were still listening to The Andrews Sisters. However the production is big and brassy and expensive so it works..
From there the season starts groping through story turns that, as I said earlier, are so wrong for the era. Suddenly Midge’s parents, the Weissmans, are no longer Catskills royalty as they run out of white privilege. And money. Abe and Rose descend from the Upper West Side to being semi-permanent houseguests of their daughter’s former machatainstuh, Abe and Shirley Maisel, in downscale Queens in Rose’s view. She was an insufferable snob in past seasons, now she’s insufferable period. Rose’s carping about what seems like a nice house in Forest Hills contributes to the unlikability of this character. This ridiculous plot line started in Season Two with Abe (Tony Shalhoub) blowing up his career as a math professor at Columbia for a sketchy gig mining data at Bell Labs which blows up his life. Some Coldish War detour that was way out of Sherman-Palladino’s skillset. We understood that Rose and Abe’s meandering warren on the Upper West Side was the property of Columbia and the Weissmans would have to vacate. With the ‘help’. Fair enough. Rose’s solution early in Season Three is to return to “Providence” to ask her family to increase her allowance from some kind of trust which should have already been in her hands at the age of 50 which is what I guesstimate as her vintage. Nonetheless, she goes to Providence which is not the Providence near the old money of Newport, Rhode Island, but the Outback of Oklahoma. Cue The Surrey With A Knish On Top. Literally the middle of nowhere. Yucheppetsville as we say in shul.
It is there that her orthodox brothers plus are running oil fields of some substance in a family manse with enough uniformed staff running around as to make Downton Abbey look like an Airbnb in Dayton, Ohio. This is ludicrous shit. I did some homework and the Jewish population in Oklahoma peaked in the 1920s at about 7,000 Jews, split between Oke City and Tulsa. Those in the lesser burgs were, to borrow from the words of Lenny Bruce, “If you live in Montana and you’re Jewish, you’re not Jewish.” Orthodox Jews need walking distance proximity to a shul. This shtetl seems to be miles from a pay phone. But I nitpick. We shall get to Bruce later. In a head scratching move, Rose walks away from the income boost because she wasn’t given a seat on the all-male “board”. WTF? This is no time to give up the silver spoon sugar, nor is it a moment to point out gender inequalities in board rooms. In 1959. Okay, maybe 1960. Rose goes back to New York broke but secure in her empowerment. Yeah. Sure. So now the Weissmans have no dough and the clock is ticking. Can’t suspend my disbelief on this one, so to speak. Especially when Abe exhibits no understanding how shit was paid for all these years. All of a sudden he can’t do the math?
Then there’s Joel Maisel, one of the most poorly sculpted male characters in TV history. I’m going to blame the omnipresent Sherman-Palladino for this one. This guy is just a shlemiel who drifted into a secretary while working at some kind of marketing firm in Season One which sent him out of his marriage and now, in Season Three, we find him mired in the family shmata business while living in a loft that might have rats but in which he houses his two young kids because Midge might be the worse TV mother in history. More on that later. In Season Three he finds a space for his dream nightclub in Chinatown but much to his chagrin, discovers a working illegal Chinese casino downstairs after he signs the lease. His oversight is not helping our impression of him but it is Sherman-Palladino’s trap door to the aforementioned inclusivity. Describing these non-English speaking stereotypes playing Pai Gow one might be excused for tripping over the word “Coolie” on the way in. Yes, the somewhat one note portrayal of shifty Chinese immigrants in those old commercials for Calgon’s “Ancient Chinese Secret” would arrive ten years later as a step up. Oy. Of course in the middle of this mishigas enters the paradoxical Stephanie Hsu as a sharp talking Tiger Lily type named “Mei”, an assimilated Asian with perfect English. Her parents run the casino but don’t speak a word of English other than universal language of cash. Which might be period correct. Mei isn’t. She’s in medical school, of all places, when not hustling jukeboxes or muscling a liquor license for Joel. Apparently medical school back then came with all kinds of free time. This is utter bullshit. I did some checking and the graduating medical school class at Columbia in 1962, which gives her the benefit of being in first or second year, contained absolutely no Asian woman. Actually no Asians. Actually no one of any color whatsoever. Yes, there were a handful of white women, one of whom actually completed a PhD prior to getting admitted. Other than that it was white male all the way.
Please don’t start picketing the campus over this horrible injustice, it’s just a sample of the demographics in the post-grad world in the late 50s. There just wasn’t a whole shit ton of qualified Asians floating around American universities back then. The Association of Chinese Medical Students wasn’t even founded until 1985. Worse, Joel would not just jump into something this potentially scandalous sixty years ago. I don’t care how “liberal” Moishe and Shirley might have been – and they weren’t in Season One when he brought the aforementioned shiksa secretary into view – but bringing home a Chinese girlfriend when your kids are in chadar would be a crime punishable by disownment. Seriously. Jews back then associated Chinese with Sunday night trayf dinners out. The Chinese by extension were trayf themselves. Something you didn’t bring into your home. That sounds more than slightly racist but that’s the way it was. Not sure the Chinese didn’t feel the same way about Jews. What irks me more is that Sherman-Palladino uses the medical school angle to give Mei an air of superiority over Joel. It’s not enough to be his equal in 1959-60. When Midge comes to the club opening to support Joel, Mei announces, with no solicitation from Midge, that she is in med school to preclude any prejudice from Midge. None was forthcoming sweetie. This is terrible storytelling, there only to appease Amazon’s Asian audience previously and properly excluded from this series about Jews in the fifties. With some good timing the New York Times ran a story in the past week about aging Chinese restaurant owners who are closing their chop suey dealerships because their well-educated kids are moving up in the world. Great. But this is a solid two generations after the period in question. There is a Heineken commercial running now where the white, similarly shlemiel-adjacent partner of an Asian woman fucks up a holiday dinner for the folks, hers not his. She has no empathy. He looks Jewish and Asians aren’t generally much on Xmas so….? That’s another tough sell, even in 2019.
Whatever level of religious observance we saw in the first two seasons is pretty much gone in this circus. There is a bris scene with the requisite fainting but that’s it. Makes The Goldbergs look like Shtisel. One of the joys of Mrs. Maisel was the fact that it was the first show to even mention Tisha B’Av , the obscure Jewish day of mourning. I like the odd pitch that is high and inside.
So let’s get back to this whole Shy Baldwin thing. Midge makes it work in warm up gigs in Las Vegas and Miami Beach where Sherman-Palladino was given a good chunk of Jeff Bezos’ dough to recreate, respectively, a period correct casino floor and the glory years at the old Fountainbleau. The art direction is seamless and sensual and rivals what Tarantino did to recreate Hollywood in the late 60s in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. More on that later. I’m not going to spoil any season endings here so I will focus on the appearance of Sterling K. Brown as Shy’s “manager” Reggie. Brown, a major talent, is brought in to ‘blacksplain’ to Midge and her manager Suzy Myerson (Alex Borstein) the lay of the land so to speak. An old white guy briefly introduced as Shy’s manager is really just a color appropriate front for the purposes of doing business with record companies etc. Reggie is really the power behind the throne and a lifelong friend of Shy’s going back to when they were just poor kids on the Harlem streets. He handles Baldwin, who needs handling. Again, Brown is terrific but the problem is that his Reggie comports himself with the arrogance and swagger of Allen Iverson. But in a very segregated 1959 America. Or 1960. Whatever. Reggie’s condescending treatment of Midge strikes the wrong tone for the times. Sorry. It seems like the black man is doing the white comic a favor here. Did I say it was 1960? Maybe. The worst example of Reggie’s attitude is during a press conference in Vegas where apparently it’s suddenly okay for Baldwin to have a manager from a visible minority. Reggie chairs the presser with a series of insults directed at the white reporters asking all too obvious questions. Not that Vegas was ever a centrifuge of great journalism but there’s no way these guys would put up with a black man pissing on them. Nor would the “made” man who runs the food and beverage operations. Again it was 1959. You don’t even see this kind of hostility in Brown’s award-winning turn on This Is Us. Not buying any of this story either. This is diversity delivered by the business end of Harley Quinn’s giant mallet.
The best thing Sherman-Palladino did in the Baldwin story, maybe the whole season, was to pay tribute to Carol Kaye, the legendary blonde bassist who got a victory lap a couple of years ago via the documentary The Wrecking Crew, a loving look at the studio musicians behind the biggest hits of the 60s. Her character shows Midge the ropes of the road and it works. However, it seems Sherman-Palladino’s carte blanche extends right down to her side hustle as the show’s music supervisor and she’s responsible for the nifty but inexplicable new wave hits that run over the end credits. Can you say absolute power?
Since there’s very little story to speak of after the above I’m going to throw down a paragraph or so on the main characters for no apparent reason other than I like the sound of my own scribbling.
Midge – Never going to win the Mother Of The Year award. But we knew this. There is one phone exchange with Joel where she seems to be annoyed that Joel is distracted by the kids making noise in the background. Like they were someone else’s brats. It’s nonsense. Did I mention that Joel and Midge sleep together a couple of times this season – his affair forgiven, sort of – and he shows up in court for the final divorce proceedings? Are these two still in love? Why did they have to get divorced anyway? Do we care? Anyway the selfish Midge is more cleaved to her ‘career’ and her wardrobe than anything else. It’s a mess that gets messier when she goes on a date with Lenny Bruce. Yeah. At this point in real life Bruce was pretty much a drug addict so the most license taken by Sherman-Palladino is with Bruce. We will, promise, get to him later. What I’m saying is that together, as a couple, Ward and June Cleaver exhibit more existential angst than Midge and Lenny. Remember Don Draper and that junkie beatnik he was shtupping in Mad Men? That, my friends, was period correct darkness. As far as Midge’s act, there is no edge, just some observational half-witticisms. We see her bomb but we don’t care. I think if I saw a young Joan Rivers, on whose career Midge is loosely based, at her worst I might be more sympathetic. But Midge just doesn’t seem that invested in her material which seems to magically fall from the sky like manna. At least we are shown that Sophie Lennon keeps a sweat shop of writers going. At all times. I once asked Rivers – look in the phonebook under “Cookies, Tough” – in an interview if she wrote her own material. “All but about ninety per cent,” was her response. We are decades away from the observational comedy of Ellen DeGeneres but Midge is now the proto-feminist.
What happens to Midge at the end of Season Three is not unlike what happened to her in Season One. I’m not worrying too much about what happens to her next season. Rachel Brosnahan has a couple of notes that she plays but they are flats. Needs more heel so to speak.
Joel – Like his ex-wife there is little to care about in this character played by Michael Zegen who is a very poor man’s Jimmy Spader. He works for his father, he opens a club, he kowtows to Midge. He’s weak. Compare him to Pete in Mad Men, a complex character that was balancing an old money past with a 60s America that was blowing all that up. He was painful to watch and that was Matt Weiner’s intent. Joel is just a Mommy’s Boy who was born during the depression. Some of the chat groups I have trolled think he should have been axed from the series. I don’t disagree. He’s not anyone’s idea of manhood. The only thing I can guess at is that this is a mirror of Sherman-Palladino’s dynamic with her own husband. If so I pity Daniel Palladino, his executive producer credit notwithstanding.
Abe – Shalhoub, as terrific an actor as he is, is second generation Lebanese and I don’t buy him as a Jew. Send out a fatwa on me for my insouciance. They are trying to pass him off as Sephardic but his eyes are too dark, his features too swarthy. And for a Jew born close to the turn of the last century, there is no gravitas painted into Abe’s character, no weight of past poverty or oppression, nor of the gestalt of the Jewish soul, just the immediacy of having gone from a distinguished Ivy League faculty member in Season One to a blubbering idiot in Season Three. He would have been better off being Armenian. When Tarantino got Pitt and DiCaprio to work on Once Upon… he burdened them with tomes of backstory on the characters so that when they went in front of the cameras the freight of their lives was palpable. Not here. In eight short episodes Abe goes from being unemployed to being radicalized by a performance by Bruce which results in both of them being arrested to gathering, out of fucking nowhere, the entire communist population of Greenwich Village in the Weissman apartment (Californication’s Madeleine Martin has watched way too much Addams Family and is, as always, unlikable) to launch a lefty newspaper to walking away from the freeloading bloc’s poor grammar in disgust to visiting his daughter in Miami Beach to reuniting with an old friend and former playwright, a parachuted-in Jason Alexander now running a surf shack at the beach, to finding out that one of Alexander’s lost plays is being staged in the inexplicably vibrant theatre scene in Miami in 1959 to writing an unsolicited op-ed piece about the revelatory nature of the play and why Broadway sucks to getting the New York Times to publish it to being offered the gig as the theatre critic of the Village Voice. All of a sudden he’s Bill Simon. A shitshow of an arc that plays like something Sherman-Palladino made up while being limo-ed to the set in her Mad Hatter getups. I blame Amazon for this rabbit hole because it seems that there isn’t a lot of creative oversight when it comes to Mrs. Maisel. I imagine the revolving door of production chiefs there has something to do with it. Whatever, there is nothing here to root for even as I can identify with Abe’s searching for his life’s third act.
Rose – Why didn’t she take her family’s dough? Pride goeth before a fall. One consistent thing about Marin Hinkle’s Rose is that the ice water that ran through her veins in Season One is still there. Her disgust at her daughter’s career (Rivers’ parents were similar in their reaction), the drinking, the hanging by a thread entitlement, all of it leaves me with another “Who cares?” Positioning her as a grande dame of Jewish society in New York is strained and she takes a career turn to matchmaking as a means of making some dough. What does she charge? No fucking idea. Again, a show that paints a picture of a community bent on pairing two respectable Jews has to be questioned when one of its own goes outside without an ounce of reflection. See Joel and Mei.
Suzy Myerson/Sophie Lennon – This Season features the end of the show’s dalliance with Jane Lynch as Sophie Lennon. Or so I hope. Myerson was asked last Season by Lennon to manage her. But it turns out that David Paymer’s character still has that job with paper to prove it. So why…? Apparently it’s Lennon’s lifelong dream to play August Strindberg’s Miss Julie so this is what Myerson, with no Broadway experience, will do – set up a Broadway show for Lennon right up to getting some hoodlums hijack a theatre set to preview Julie Andrews. Did we need this angle or was Sherman-Palladino short a few minutes that week? All this does is make a buffoon out of Lynch’s character, ruining some of the brilliant regal silence she brought to the role earlier. I had speculated on whom the character was based and I believe it is the late great Phyllis Diller who wore the fat suit but played classical piano at home for her five children. She would be insulted by Lennon’s hubris. Borstein has won awards for Suzy and its an original character although it appears that everything she learned in acting came from watching Moe Howard’s work. I expect her next season to walk around with pliers greeting everyone with, “Oh, a wisenheimer eh?” Her complete lack of decorum was refreshing in early seasons. Now its just grating. She isn’t much of a manager either. And are we supposed to feel bad because she develops a gambling problem?
Moishe & Shirley Maisel – Emily Nussbaum wrote in the New Yorker last season that Kevin Pollak’s Moishe was a borderline anti-semitic characterization. I agree. He was boastful, grasping, boorish and a little untrustworthy. But he was carrying generations of shit-eating on his soul and he emerges as Season Three’s most evolved character. Not only does he show some rachmones for the Weissmans by letting them move into his new house in Queens but Moishe agrees to sell Midge back her old apartment at the right price. Same guy who evicted her back in Season One. And his collected wisdoms are actually fairly smart coming from decades of dealing with the brutality of Seventh Avenue. His floor of seamstresses is a visual marvel. Shirley reminds me of Travolta’s portrayal of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. A big-hearted trainwreck of a woman. In touch with nothing but her need for the monkey on The Today Show. Kudos to the Palladinos for the reference although maybe three per cent of Maisel’s viewers remember a simian named J. Fred Muggs.
Lenny Bruce – Luke Kirby’s (Canadian and Jewish) wildly interpretive portrayal of Bruce is the only thing worth watching. Whatever liberties Sherman-Palladino has taken here I can live with because her whimsy is actually kind of charming. Kirby never wavers from whatever pallette Sherman-Palladino created for him in Season One. It’s not really Lenny and his soul is “tortured lite” compared to the real deal. By this time Bruce already had a kid, Kitty, whom I remember as a singer at The Improv a hundred years ago. The former comedy writer Susan Silver wrote about Bruce and his date with Joan Rivers a couple of years ago. She did not give Sherman-Palladino a break on a bunch of fronts, in spite of being a pioneering writer for Maude way the hell back when. But, as I said, I will give Sherman-Palladino some lateral room on Bruce, as I did Tarantino on rewriting the Tate/Labianca Murders for OUATIH. The show seems to slow down when Bruce is on screen. In a good way. Shots linger, cigarette smoke wafts nicely, lines are carefully spoken, not spat. There is slow dancing. Not real Bruce but the Sherman-Palladinos scored with me in Season Two on the note for note (sort of) recreation of a Bruce appearance on the old Steve Allen Show . There is less of him in this season. But less is more.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of them. Happy Hannukah!