The first two seasons of the wonderful Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are beginning to feel like Act One of the overarching story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (nee Weissman). Those episodes served to introduce the show’s huge cast of colorful characters and set up the inciting incidents that would prove to be pivotal moments in Midge’s life, as well as the lives of those who are caught up in her orbit.
There was no Season 2 sophomore slump. In large part, this was because the seasons were shorter than we have grown accustomed to on broadcast television. And, honestly, the first two seasons could have been Parts 1 and 2 of a single season. Season 3 kicks off Midge’s Act Two, the length of which will be determined by how many years the series remains on the air. In my mind, Act Three will be an abrupt and to-the-point final season in which Midge and Joel will either truly reconcile (which is most likely) or find true happiness with other partners (which still seems unlikely). You can usually bet on the happiest of happy endings with a show such as this one, not a fade-to-black in a city diner or the death of our lead character.
The viewer had to expect an eventual let-down with Mrs. Maisel, as the life cycle of a series must have its peaks and valleys. For me, this was a valley.
Let’s talk about why this was so. I don’t plan to shy away from spoilers in this review. So, if you haven’t watched this season, go ahead and do that now and then get back to me. There’s only eight episodes; it shouldn’t take you too long.
You’re back? Good.
Chances are, like me, you were blown away by the show’s high production values. It’s a good looking series, with bright costumes and period-appropriate settings. The camera moves almost continuously, as choreographed as some of the musical setpieces we’re entertained with during the season. None of the criticisms that I will level at the show are because of its aesthetics.
Nor will I complain about the characters and the type of rapid-fire, witty dialogue I was conditioned to expect, not just from the first two seasons but from Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous work—along with husband and creative partner Daniel Palladino—on Gilmore Girls, a series I enjoyed. This series is replete with colorful characters, including a multitude of strong female characters. Long after I’ve forgotten individual plot lines, I’ll remember the characters.
It is, of course, the story itself that falters this season. As Season 3 opens, we’re dealing with the aftermath of Season 2. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnhan) has called off her engagement to Dr. Benjamin (Zachary Levi), and is going on tour as the opening act for African American crooner Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain). She has prioritized her new career over her personal life and relationships. Meanwhile, Midge’s father, Abe Weissman (Tony Shaloub) has left his job at Columbia, which means the Weissmans will have to leave their improbably huge apartment overlooking Central Park. Plus, Midge is still divorcing her husband Joel (Michael Zegan). So, there’s a whole lot of turmoil as we head into Act Two.
Which kicks off with a glitzy USO number.
Those who know me know that I’m not a fan of musicals. Music, I love. But, I usually tune out when characters on-screen begin singing and/or dancing. When it’s disguised as an actual on-stage performance, a part of the story, it becomes a bit more palatable to me. And, that’s usually the case with Mrs. Maisel. However, we do get one choreographed water ballet segment later in the season that’s completely pointless. If this sounds like your sort of thing, I’m not judging you. It’s just not mine.
From this well-staged and choreographed beginning, we leap headlong into a mélange of plot threads that have no real central through line. We love all of the characters and the actors playing them, and want to devote some story time to each, whether or not the stories intersect at all.
Midge travels to Las Vegas with Shy Baldwin, where the two seem to be developing a close friendship. There are personal revelations about Shy that are telegraphed as clumsily as a palooka’s weak left hook, but Midge remains oblivious, having lived in a world where gay people obviously didn’t exist. Shy’s manager and best friend, Reggie, is played to the hilt by an always wonderful Sterling K. Brown. Brown brings some nuance to the role, rather than just being a foil for Midge and her manager, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein). Lisa Weil—a Gilmore Girls alum—also appears as a female member of Shy’s band who also befriends Midge.
Everything is coming up roses for Mrs. Maisel until the end of the season, when she opens for Shy at The Apollo in New York, making off-the-cuff remarks that causes Shy to kick her off his tour. That is the extent of Midge’s story arc this season: she experiences great professional success, then loses it all in one fell swoop. Along the way, she somehow remarries Joel while he improbably visits her in Vegas, but they haven’t genuinely reconciled. Also, she does finally make an attempt at an apology to Dr. Ben, but not until he visits her, angry because Midge’s mother Rose (Marin Hinkle) is trying to set him up with other women.
None of these plot points seem to be heading anywhere. They are just things that happen. Like the return of Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) to Midge’s life, for one episode, which seems to heading the direction of romance but wisely veers off. Maybe because Bruce was a real person, one destined to die of a heroin overdose at some point.
Susie Myerson is a part of any story line involving Midge, of course, but she gets her own story arc as well. She learns to swim in Florida, develops a gambling addiction, and spends time managing Midge’s arch-rival Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch), who thinks she wants to be a real Broadway actress. Alex Borstein is always a terrific, foul-mouthed presence and is entertaining to watch. But, these side stories add little to the series other than deepening Susie’s characterization a bit. I genuinely felt the raw emotional anguish that the character was dealing with when she lost Midge’s money through bad gambling bets. But, Susie dealt with the problem by burning down her family home for the insurance money, with Midge never knowing what had happened, so the sum effect was zilch.
Abe Weissman flirts with communism by trying to get a newspaper off the ground with a group of young, clueless beatniks. Then he visits an old playwright friend (Jason Alexander) who had been blacklisted on Broadway years ago, and somehow falls ass-backwards into a job as a theater critic. Along the way, he and his wife Rose, having left their plush apartment, have to move in with Joel’s parents, Moishe (Kevin Pollack) and Shirley Maisel (Caroline Aaron) after Rose improbably gives up her family trust fund when she feels like she was disrespected by her brother in Oklahoma. This plot development is the most sitcom-esque situation in this otherwise solid dramedy. It’s good for a few cheap laughs and groans, but not much else. We know it’s a temporary living arrangement at best, an excuse to give the elder Maisels more screen time.
Meanwhile, Joel Maisel, when he’s not visiting and remarrying his ex-wife, has left his father’s company and is trying to open his own club in Chinatown. He ends up in a relationship with Mei (Stephanie Hsu), another plucky Sherman-Palladino female character, who is the liaison for the illegal Chinese gambling den operating out of Joel’s club.
At the end of eight episodes, all of the characters seem to be in a state of personal flux. Things are still changing, and some of our characters seem worse off than when the season began. A lot of stuff happens in just eight episodes. I believe I’ve communicated that here. If the story itself seems to lack cohesion or unity, then I’ve also successfully communicated my own reaction to the season. High production values, witty dialogue and solid acting go a long way with me, but none of these are a substitute for a cohesive story. At some point it becomes more about style over substance.
I’m giving The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a mulligan for Season 3. Call it a delayed sophomore slump, if you will. Still better than most television out there today, certainly, but not living up to the promise of the first two seasons. I expect better and still look forward to the next season.
Firewater’s The-Horse-Can-Go-To-Hell Report Card: B
This one moved some pieces around on the board, hopefully setting up better things to come.