I’m missing Midge, she who headlines the Amazon Prime show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which has topped off its penultimate Season 4 with a dazzling caught-in-the-snowflakes-in-NYC act. The motormouth female comic, with her rat-a-tat lines, and fabulous outfits, works hard to make us forget an indifferent Season 3. She waltzes into an illegal strip club with a solo set, managing to make it a somewhat respectable space, much to the horror of its rough-and-tumble regulars. She talks down a much more established rival, never abandoning her sartorial sharpness even at her lowest: the costumes and the window dressing in the series are a constant delight.
There’s a special joy in watching a woman looking all comers in the eye, battle-and-riposte-ready, and our Midge, played with sparkly bio by Rachel Brosnahan, possesses that ability in spades. Despite all the low blows and buffetings, sometimes created by her own inability to see sense, Midge Maisel refuses to give up.
For those not up to speed with the happenings in Midge’s not-so-marvellous life, here’s a quick recap. What does an Upper West Side Jewish housewife in the late ’50s-early ’60s America, with a handsome husband and two good-looking children, and surrounded by nosey, loving, constantly-interfering parents and in-laws do when she finds herself without said spouse (who is having a bit on the side in the office), and without the money to support herself? Her discovery that zero prospects can be turned into a rollicking stand-up act is a revelation. From that moment on, Midge is set on a learning curve, living without the comfortable crutches a woman of her class has taken for granted, playing with the spotlight, digging into her life experiences for comic gold, and wielding anger as a weapon.
Revenge is what she wants. Getting her own back at the forces that have left her grappling with pending bills grocery, milk, dry-cleaning — and a big loan from in-laws (Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron) who have restored her to her plush apartment. Her ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and his pregnant Chinese girl-friend hover uneasily. Then there’s her agent Susie (Alex Borstein, consistently terrific), who often seems to be at cross-purposes with her ambition. Her mother’s (Marin Hinkle) tentative stepping into the highly competitive field of matchmaking, and her father’s (Tony Shalhoub) hilarious foray into journalism (with a column in The Village Voice, no less, which gets a great Nixon vs Kennedy scene) also get space, and the episode in which their sex lives become a punchline is a hoot.
The best comedies are always more than just gags and funny lines, and characters trembling on the border of being caricatures: they tell you about manners and mores. New York-based Jewish families of the time would have had no difficulties in recognising themselves in the Maisels and the Weismanns, with their constant squabbling and stepping on each other’s toes. Privacy? What’s that? The cabal of matchmakers who have divvied up NYC among themselves, keeping a sharp eye on eligible bachelors and potential brides feels familiar. Our Sima Aunty, self-styled matchmaker par excellence, who currently holds such sway on the global market, could have learnt a thing or two from these ladies and their ferocious commitment to the cause of moneyed matrimony.
What’s truly interesting is just how conservatism and modernism plays out in the America of the time. When Midge is forced to fend for herself, she is up against a philandering husband, disapproving parents and in-laws, and sundry other naysayers. How do women groomed strictly to be perfect wives and mothers, carve out an identity for themselves? We never see Midge, who is back to being called by her ‘proper name’ Miriam, in this season, rumpled even when she is ruffled. The person who is allowed to be messy and unkempt is the mannish Susie, with her dodgy mobster pals. The rundown club’s strippers are never portrayed in an undignified fashion. They may be wiggling and jiggling, and baring their flesh, but they are people with a paying job.
But this series, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and produced by husband Dan Palladino, never strays too far from its leading lady, whose struggles to break into the all-boys’ club of stand-up comedy has been mined from real-life people and situations of the time. Sixty years on, how much have things changed, for women who want to stand up and be counted? It is a question worth asking.