'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Season 3: TV Review

When it's good, it's very good. When it's bad, it's probably focusing on Joel.

Amy Sherman-Palladino's Emmy-winning Amazon comedy returns for a new season that features reliably great work from Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein, but continues to occasionally lose focus.

It's impossible to write about Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino and the television worlds they've built without using the word "warmth." It's not a coincidence that Amazon has turned The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel into a winter tradition or that Netflix did the same with Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. If you wanted to adapt a mulled beverage into a TV series, this is the creative team to do it and December is the month you'd want it to premiere.

Part of how Team Sherman-Palladino engenders the warm-fuzzies is through the building of vast onscreen communities, whether the literal fictional town of Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls or the dance troupe and surrounding ensemble that we assume would have continued to grow if Bunheads continued beyond its lone season. But it's almost impossible to like everybody in the worlds they build — and as magnificent as Amy and Dan have been at construction, they've been less successful in curation.

That brings me to the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which remains at times as good as it has ever been, while continuing to struggle with a focus that often strays either into things it doesn't do nearly as well or things I don't enjoy nearly as much.

When we left things, Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) was preparing to go on tour as the opener for crooner Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain). As part of a self-destructive streak that drives many of Sherman-Palladino's protagonists, she used this as an excuse to end her brief, sweet and perfunctory romance with Zachary Levi's Dr. Benjamin and to make a mistake with ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen). Plus, Susie (Alex Borstein) was mulling an offer to manage Midge's arch rival, Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch).

And that's where we pick up. Critics have been sent the first five episodes of the new season and they feature Midge and Susie learning about life on the road; Joel still dealing with his feelings for Midge while beginning the slow process of launching some sort of nightclub; Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose (Marin Hinkle) facing a dramatic lifestyle change; and Joel's parents (Kevin Pollak's Moishe and Caroline Aaron's Shirley) shouting a lot, because that's basically what they do.

The tour with Shy is crucial to breaking with the incremental stops and starts of Midge's comedy career, a minor frustration that set in during the second season. Yes, she still has sets that bomb, but there's progress and, most importantly, a new world to explore for characters who are, maybe for the first time, recognizing how sheltered their upbringings are.

Watching Midge and Susie exploring early tour stops in Las Vegas and Miami delivers a string of pure pleasures, most of all when it comes to the reliable comic sweet spot of putting Susie in uncomfortable situations, whether it's her first time on an airplane or learning to swim. Thanks to detours back to New York, there are times when it feels like it's Susie who's holding together the series' disparate plotlines and if it turns out that the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel belongs to Alex Borstein, it's hard to imagine any complaints. The show's tentativeness when it comes to Susie's sexuality is eyebrow-raising, especially with the running joke in which people think she's a man, but whether it's the series' refusal to have this conversation or a reflection of the period remains in question.

The series started in 1958 and as we approach the volatility of the '60s, The Marvelous Maisel hovers on the brink of several things it either isn't prepared to tackle or isn't prepared to tackle yet. It's hard, for example, to look at the tentative flirtations between Midge and Shy, as well as the whole business side of their relationship, without thinking the show should have more consciousness of the racial dynamics at play. We're moving into a time frame in which Mad Men was criticized for tentative treatment of the Civil Rights movement and whatnot, but Mad Men didn't pretend these divisions didn't exist and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel sometimes appears to.

More and more, Midge's insularity is becoming a plot point and I think the show is aware that as modern and progressive as she occasionally is, she has limitations of experience that might hold her back. It's all a challenge to show how much Brosnahan's energy and motor-mouthed glee can cover for character flaws and, as with previous Sherman-Palladino leading ladies like Lauren Graham and Sutton Foster, the performance keeps the prickliness manageable. How Midge expands her horizons remains to be seen, though so far her advancement is primarily focused around Luke Kirby's Lenny Bruce, whose inevitable personal tragedy stays in conflict with the chemistry Kirby and Brosnahan share. I'll say that the season's fifth episode may include my favorite Midge/Lenny interactions and I wouldn't be sad if it were their last. It won't be.

Lurking all the while is Joel, and I'm never completely sure if Joel is a character the creators simply like more than I do or if the creators enjoy the discomfort caused by keeping him in the picture. Joel's nightclub venture introduces him, professionally, to Stephanie Hsu's Mei — and as much as this is yet another example of the show's difficulties treating difference as anything other than foreign "other"-ness, it's still my favorite use of Joel to date because Hsu is a natural with the show's dialogue and because the club gives Joel an independent life.

These early episodes have more trouble integrating the older generation. Last year's Paris and Catskills trips at least gave Hinkle and Shalhoub things to do. Here, Abe is adrift both intentionally and unintentionally and at no point did cutting to his leftist broadsheet storyline feel like a worthwhile detour. Shalhoub and Hinkle are at least better utilized than Pollak and Aaron, who don't need to be regulars if they're not given more to do than yell and perpetuate stereotypes. Or maybe they're designed to rub viewers the wrong way, just as the two sets of in-laws rub each other the wrong way?

It's already hard enough to make time for all of the faces with new or expanding roles, starting with Lynch, Hsu and McLain. Sterling K. Brown is funny, intense and gets one priceless musical moment as Shy's manager. Brown's Reggie may be the only character in the series with a perspective on America's racial realities and I hope he gets a worthwhile payoff. Also adding value to the ensemble are Cary Elwes, Lenny Venito and Liza Weil, ever an asset in Amy Sherman-Palladino's universe.

This is all before we get to the below-the-line superlatives of Midge's oft-mocked, oft-envied wardrobe and the exemplary production design that carries over to a Sin City casino floor and the lobby of a Florida luxury hotel this season. Both get their best showcase when Sherman-Palladino is behind the camera.

As a director, her love of detail-embracing crane shots and full-scale production numbers knows no bounds. More than Daniel when he's directing or any of the occasional outside directors, Sherman-Palladino's approach says, "Here! Look at all that's wondrous in this show! Get caught up in all that's good [and maybe ignore what doesn't work]." More often than not, I'm able to do just that.

Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron

Creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino

Premieres Friday, Dec. 6, on Amazon.