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There are many ways a fictional character can grow, and Amy Sherman-Palladino has always seemed to favor The Really Big Mistake. She likes her protagonists to wake up in bed with the wrong man or break some semi-minor law or speak aloud something that can never be taken back, setting up characters and audiences alike for extended stewing and facing of consequences.
When we left Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) at the end of the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in late 2019, she seemed positioned for some stewing and consequences. In case you’ve forgotten — December 2019 feels like such ancient history it could be envisioned with a Flintstonian intersection of people and dinosaurs — Midge had just blown her biggest professional opportunity, getting fired from Shy Baldwin’s European tour after an improvised Apollo set that came dangerously close to outing the popular singer’s sexuality.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Airdate: Friday, February 18 (Amazon)
Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Marin Hinkle, Tony Shalhoub, Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron
Creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino
The mistake felt like the climax of a season in which Midge was slowly moving outside of her insular bubble of 1950s affluence, setting her and the story up for growth within the tumultuous 1960s. Not so fast!
Whether owing to a resistance to change on Midge’s part or on Sherman-Palladino’s part, or a determination to re-acclimate viewers slowly in response to the long layoff, the opening episodes of the fourth season are a step backward — or at least a reset. That regression isn’t necessarily one of quality. The season’s first two episodes — one written and directed by Sherman-Palladino and the other by husband Daniel Palladino — are packed with the show’s reliably sizzling dialogue, some (but surely not all) of your favorite performances and the normal impeccable production values.
Still, it’s hard not to be a hair underwhelmed by how frequently these episodes elicit reactions not of pleasure or amusement but of “Why are we back to this again?” It’s only at the end of the second episode — two is the fewest sent to critics preseason since the show launched — that I got any sense of the show moving forward, rather than dancing in circles so dainty that Midge Maisel would absolutely find much to mock.
Or maybe it just makes sense that when it comes to Midge’s season three actions, a reset would be a character-appropriate consequence? One step forward, two steps back, and whatnot?
Because a reset is definitely what we’re getting here. Midge has moved back into her original posh apartment thanks to a loan from Joel’s (Michael Zegen) father, Moishe (Kevin Pollak), and even though we suspect Moishe isn’t going to have her kneecaps broken for failure to make payments, she needs money.
Unfortunately, her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) gambled away her earnings, leading to a deal with Joel and some casual insurance fraud. Abe (Tony Shalhoub), after a brief period of whimsical unemployment, just got a job as theater critic for The Village Voice, which must have made sense to somebody when storylines were being pitched. And Joel is still dealing with the consequences of opening a club that’s really a front for a Chinatown crime syndicate, the unexpected winner of last season’s “What the heck should we do with Joel?” writers room lottery.
For Midge, it’s a return to personal, rather than professional, stakes, especially since she gives no indication of awareness that what she did to Shy was bad (and it definitely was). Again, she faces the indignities of being disrespected as a single mother and the challenges of getting anybody to take her seriously as a comedian, now owing to her notoriety — Shy canning her made headlines — rather than exclusively her gender. And what it means is that a show that has thrived on pushing its main character forward, giving her new stakes and surrounding her with new settings and new characters to create new energy, is relying almost exclusively on the old to start the season.
The main character is coasting on her greatest hits, the show is coasting on its greatest hits and so my review is mostly that the things I like about the show remain, the things I don’t like about the show remain and there isn’t enough that’s different to shake it out of a rut.
Brosnahan hasn’t suddenly ceased to be the primary reason to watch, with her confident evocation of Sherman-Palladino’s spiky comic rhythms, which are at their most joyful when she can share the screen with Borstein. The series has, for a couple of seasons now, had a Lenny Bruce problem: Luke Kirby’s take on the iconoclastic comic was so indelible and his chemistry with Midge so strong that the writers have been forced to over-rely on a character who was always going to present biographical difficulties as a love interest.
Instead, Midge has been given several alternatives for her affections, and their collective failure is evident in how thoroughly Lenny’s absence is felt in the season’s first two episodes. It’s a bad position for the show to be in, because I don’t love Midge and Lenny as a couple, but the show needs them as a couple.
As it stands — and as it has always stood, I suppose — Midge and Susie are the show’s real core pairing (in part because of the show’s baffling refusal to elevate Bailey De Young’s Imogene to something more regular). I tend not to like Susie as much when she has foils other than Midge. Here, the stuff with Susie’s insurance fraud feels, thus far, poorly considered, and the stuff with Susie and Joel’s uneasy business alliance feels, like so many things relating to Joel, like a tacked on effort to keep Zegen around. Joel’s primary storyline continues to be the stuff with the club and the Chinese crime syndicate, still right on the edge of caricature, and if you wanted to protest that it goes over that edge into xenophobia, I wouldn’t fight you. I’ll admit that I don’t dislike Joel as much as I did in the first season, but that doesn’t mean I understand why the show has to work so hard to keep him around.
And yes, I know that Joel is still around because at least theoretically he will always be a part of Midge’s life, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to be around as much as he is — nor that his parents always need to be around. After four seasons, it’s bizarre that Pollack and Caroline Aaron as Joel’s mother are there to yell and little more. The new season includes a scene in Coney Island in which the entire joke is all of the show’s characters shouting at each other from different cars of the Wonder Wheel that might have been designed just to troll me.
And yet the production design in that Coney Island scene, and Bill Groom’s work throughout, is Emmy-worthy, as are Donna Zakowska’s costumes. I’ll always relish the general ensemble, the joy so many actors take in the series’ trademark prose and the stylistic flourishes Sherman-Palladino and Palladino bring to nearly every episode. Do the first two episodes point to a creative rut for the show or to a temporary rut for Midge? I guess viewers will have to wait and see, but no matter my myriad reservations, I’m not going anywhere.
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