Stand up for ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’
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A few scenes into The Marvelous Mrs Maisel—a glossy new Amazon series about an incredibly confident Jewish woman in New York navigating the stand-up comedy scene of the late 1950s—Barbra Streisand takes over. No, madam Streisand does not play a character on the show or grace it with a cameo but—even better—the show cranks up a sensational 1963 song of hers called Come To The Supermarket (In Old Peking) where she belts out a dizzying selection of what might be available for sale at Old Peking, which is absolutely everything, from “a slave that’s awfully African” to “a dwarf who used to know Snow White”.
What this song does—played not in the background but brassily in the foreground, as Mrs Maisel travels out of the ritzy Upper West Side and into the murky Village where anything is possible and everything feels exotic, including the grime—is to loudly give us not merely the vibe but the beat of the show. The swinging soundtrack is calculated to make us tap and snap in time with the characters and their mood, and creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (best known for Gilmore Girls) throws in songs not merely from iconic women like Peggy Lee but from Broadway productions themselves. Therefore, as one man visits another in his shop, a track from the old musical Tenderloin takes over, and later, when Mrs Maisel is feeling particularly disdainful towards an idiot, the immaculately named Blossom Dearie song that plays is called The Gentleman Is A Dope.
This approach of leading mood via music allows Sherman-Palladino to cleverly appropriate the buoyancy and froth of a musical without having her characters break into song. They may as well, however, since we watch them do very Broadway things: They shuffle, they glide, they apparate, they shine. They also flash their breasts. Well, one of them does.
“‘Nice’ is a bad, bad word,” says Miriam Maisel, 26 and perfect, sitting in a taxicab and making notes to help her husband, Joel, hone his attempts at comedy. Miriam, who cold-creams her face with the furtiveness of a Soviet agent and measures her thighs and ankles every single day, somehow also finds the time to make briskets to bribe bartenders with, so they’ll give her husband a slot to perform his jokes. As characters go, Miriam is spectacular and capable of doing it all, with a world-conquering spring in her step. Her husband is a blessed man, suffering from but one fatal realization: She’s funnier than him.
She is, to be fair, everything-er than him, a bright woman with a magnificent smile who is one of the most fascinating—and visibly intelligent—protagonists on television today. With a soaring performance by Rachel Brosnahan, Miriam comes across as indefatigable even when bivouacked in her parents’ house. There is no job too small and no stage too tall, as she begins by deconstructing the anatomy of a laugh and finds herself arrested while she identifies her voice. This is the story of a woman who could, and while it may be undeniably wishful and nearly resemble a fairy tale, it is rousing nonetheless.
Set in a gorgeous and gleaming pre-Mad Men era, the show tells us about New York and comedy in that age, and of the sexism and discrimination Miriam has to combat. It is the kind of show where everything appears obvious but nothing really is, with characters looking like a type but turning out to be fleshed out and evolved beyond expectations. One of my favourites is Miriam’s father, Abe—played by the amazing Tony Shalhoub—who teaches mathematics at Columbia University and is now watching his daughter’s life implode. Abe is all furrowed-brow and reserve, frowning and wishing things were different, until there comes a moment when he plays it cool professionally, only to later erupt with sheer giddy joy at home. We see where Miriam gets her ebullience, just as we see how she inherits style from her mother, Rose, played by a fabulously graceful Miriam Hinkle.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is a joy. It is showily directed—snazzily, even—with several long single-take sequences and a glorious sense of cinematic ambience, its frames forever accentuating and underlining mood instead of realism. The wit on display is snappy and sharp, and watching this heroine on song must be akin to witnessing Dorothy Parker as she may have been after those infamous four martinis. I watched the eight episodes in a week and find myself now watching them all over again, a smile plastered on my face as I offer Amazon the ultimate applause: This show is so good that I don’t begrudge it the excruciating American spelling of the word “marvelous”. As far as I’m concerned, Mrs Maisel can spell her show any way she likes.
Comedians are an inward-gazing lot, as I’ve written in this column earlier. There are too many American television shows about stand-up comedy, with several new ones springing up this year itself. This one, however, is leagues ahead not simply because it focuses on a different era but because the comedy performed and discussed within the show is genuinely funny. The show opens with an ode to Bob Newhart’s most famous comedy record, and the one and only Lenny Bruce is a recurring character. It is admittedly a very male world, but once in a while a comedienne breaks through. Mrs Maisel dismantles the patriarchy with so much flair and so much promise that we could call her a regular Joan of Arc—or even a Joan of Rivers. Scratch that. I must take that back. This lady is anything but regular.
Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
He tweets at @rajasen