WHAT IT’S ABOUT It’s 1958 and Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a mother of two, married to Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen), and the four live in the well-appointed Upper West Side apartment of her parents, Rose (Marin Hinkle) and Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub). Joel is the prototypical man in the gray flannel suit by day, but by night he’s an aspiring stand-up. Only problem — he’s a lousy one. He’s a lousy husband, too, and dumps Midge for his secretary. Left with two children and no future, Mrs. Maisel embarks on a new life and career, as a stand-up, with a tough, savvy manager, Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein), by her side. This series is from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”).
MY SAY Any resemblance between the life and career of Midge Maisel and the life and career of Joan Rivers is purely coincidental, but probably not too coincidental. Both were daughters in upwardly mobile Jewish families in the ’50s, both married and divorced young, both were also suddenly adrift in a world that had expected nothing more of them than uxorious glory. Also this: Both got their start at the old Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street, magnet for the beat poets and, incidentally, Bob Dylan. (It closed in 1971.)
Why not just name this “The Marvelous Mrs. Rivers”? Because Rivers was incomparable, and why risk comparisons? Besides, Sherman-Palladino had other models to work from as well. Sophie Tucker — “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” — was a proto-stand-up, followed later by Belle Barth, Betty Walker, Totie Fields, Jean Carroll. They were Jewish-American comedians who were tough, occasionally (or frequently) profane and sure didn’t care much for uxorious glory. A glass ceiling or husband didn’t get in their way. They wouldn’t have dared.
“Mrs. Maisel” is a tribute to this lost world, to their lost world. It’s about women wresting control of their lives from a society that wasn’t about ceding control to anyone. What’s on screen, front and center, is Midge Maisel’s attempt to start a new life — and future — amid the repression of the era. The show finds humor, if not always comedy, in the attempt. Mostly it finds audacity.
As usual, loving a Sherman-Palladino show means loving language, specifically her brand of patter that takes viewers — not to mention courageous actors — on a high-speed gallop through a maze of references, asides, metaphors and flourishes. In the early episodes, Mrs. Maisel’s material isn’t exactly prepared “material” so much as stuff she’s picked up at the dinner table or from friends walking their kid in Central Park — the whining, the chatter or the chronic “tsuris” of aggrieved parents. The Sherman-Palladino style is well-suited to this kind of high-wire kibbitz. The biggest surprise is that Brosnahan is, too. She’s perfect as a Sherman-Palladino heroine: tough, fragile, appealing and adroit with the words (lots and lots of those).
“Mrs. Maisel” can — yup — be chatty to the point of exhaustion, and a little can go a long way. But what’s here is worth savoring and, if you can get past the verbal gymnastics, worth the trip.
BOTTOM LINE Another immaculate Sherman-Palladino period dramedy that — like “Bunheads” — requires patience: yours. Early episodes indicate that it will be paid off.