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Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the first streaming shows to win the drama and comedy series Emmys, are funhouse mirror images of each other.
Both are stories of women, played by Emmy-winning leading ladies, trying to reclaim their voices and their names against the forces of rigidly patriarchal societies. It’s an odd circumstantial irony that the hyperstylized dystopic future of Handmaid’s Tale feels so much more immediate and real than the hyperstylized, and ultimately protective and insulating, past of Mrs. Maisel.
Air date: Dec 05, 2018
Even when the show is at its best, the scalding, plaintive wail of The Handmaid’s Tale also makes it a tough sit in large quantities, a stumbling block accompanied by mounting expectations in a binge-friendly environment. In contrast, even when it’s stumbling, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a light and profoundly pleasurable series to watch, a series built to curl up with during a blizzard or moment of political distress.
Returning Dec. 5 for winter viewing, like a fast-talking, reference-spewing Yule Log, the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is awash in stumbles and questionable choices of focus, yet when Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue is humming and the remarkable cast is in rhythm, there are few shows on TV whose faults are easier to excuse.
The new season begins with Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge simultaneously basking in the glow of her triumphant performance at the Gaslight and facing the blowback from alienating several of Manhattan’s most powerful comedy figures. To make ends meet, she’s manning the basement switchboard at B. Altman, far from the Revlon counter of her dreams. As Midge’s dogged manager Susie (Alex Borstein) hustles to stir up publicity and gigs, Midge is forced to join her father (Tony Shalhoub) on an abrupt trip to Paris related to her disenchanted mother (Marin Hinkle).
If ever a show earned a boondoggle trip to Paris from its network, it’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and this jaunt represents the shiniest, least essential boondoggle imaginable. The Parisian episodes feature what is probably my favorite scene of the entire series thus far, but it’s a scene that takes place inside a smoky cabaret that certainly could have been realized on a soundstage by production designer extraordinaire Bill Groom. Sherman-Palladino’s clear enchantment with cobblestone streets and utilizing the Seine as a glorious and glorified backdrop just means that Paris of the late-1950s is treated the same as New York, which is to say “magically,” hardly “authentically.”
It doesn’t help that the justification for the Paris trip, especially as relates to Midge, is decidedly flimsy. It’s really a showcase for Shalhoub and Hinkle, two actors whose undeniable chance to shine comes at the total expense of the show’s ongoing momentum. That Rose and Abe’s beret-filled adventures earned a “That’s charming, but why?” shrug from me means that subplot is still better than the show’s persistent fascination with Michael Zegen’s completely unfascinating Joel. Midge’s ex’s increased presence here only works as an excuse to keep Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron around as Joel’s parents, and their side story, which involves the unexplainable hoarding of money, will do nothing to quiet anybody with concerns that the show’s immersion in Judaism, more committed than any show this side of Transparent, runs the risk of teetering into stereotyping.
There’s a palpable desire in the new season to make The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel into a bit more of an ensemble — little Ethan and Esther, Midge’s generally neglected children, are more frequently seen and discussed, staving off complaints of maternal negligence — a choice that I appreciated most when it comes to Borstein’s Susie, whose stand-alone storylines in the opening hours are far superior to whatever’s happening in Paris. The series remains at its best when it’s Midge and Susie bickering and hustling. Brosnahan’s razor-sharp perkiness, continuing to carve out something distinctive from past Sherman-Palladino heroines without losing any sing-song appeal, and Borstein’s symphony of gruff rejoinders have meshed as one of TV’s best friendships.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of that even if there’s a distinct early feeling that Sherman-Palladino’s treatment of Midge’s career is repetitive, albeit perhaps unavoidably so. From its pilot, the series began with Midge’s stand-up voice so fully formed that it’s a challenge for the writers to figure out how to keep proving that she represents something singular and yet can still grow — a complication that also returns any time Luke Kirby’s Lenny Bruce appears dispensing advice like something of a foul-mouthed, semitic Jiminy Cricket. The chemistry between Brosnahan and Kirby, so much greater than anything Brosnahan and Zegen have, also generates an inevitably thwarted romantic wishfulness that the introduction of a doctor played by guest star Zachary Levi may or may not be designed to cut off at the pass. Levi’s arrival is timed to a multi-episode jaunt to the Catskills, less boondoggle-y than Paris and a clear suggestion that between this and Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s body of work has just been a slowly building stealth Dirty Dancing TV series.
Sherman-Palladino won Emmys for writing and directing for the first season, and the five new episodes do nothing to dispel the sense that the show is best when the notorious chapeau enthusiast wears both hats. The credits come at the end of episodes, and it’s usually possible to guess Sherman-Palladino’s contributions from both the precision of the dialogue and, much more elusively, the quantity of warm, smile-eliciting moments. Episodes from husband Daniel Palladino usually nail the talking speed and are frequently very funny, without usually getting the heart right. And episodes written and directed by anybody else tend to fall short on most levels. That Sherman-Palladino wrote and directed three of these early episodes should set up expectations properly for Amazon’s most generous holiday present other than free shipping.
Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron
Creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino
Premieres Wednesday, Dec. 5, on Amazon.
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