NEW YORK — This year, your Hanukkah gifts are coming from Amazon.
Eight episodes (one for each night!) of warm, witty and extremely Jewish television have dominated my world of late, thanks to Amazon’s distribution model of dumping an entire season on your doorstep, ringing the bell, then running off into the night. Not since my Yom Kippur break fast (a topic that kicks off the show, oddly enough) have I binged on something with such rapacity.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the latest from “Gilmore Girls” producer Amy Sherman-Palladino (who also writes and directs the bulk of the series), is set in late 1950s New York and is a fever dream of nostalgia and wish-fulfillment.
Its breakneck speed of screwball dialogue and elegant camera moves (complicated choreography too graceful to be called showboating) is infectious, as is its winning nature. As my friends and I keep saying to one another, “this is ‘Mad Men’ if ‘Mad Men’ were, you know, fun.”
Miriam “Midge” Maisel (the brilliant and beautiful Rachel Brosnahan) is a sharp-tongued Bryn Mawr graduate (“that goyish school with bad deli!”) who, in her late 20s, has two small children and a husband named Joel with a boring office job (Michael Zegan, the spitting image of the young Peter Reigert).
She lives on the Upper West Side in the same doorman apartment with her parents (Tony Shalhoub, a dour Columbia University mathematics professor and Marin Hinkle, a mother who likes to worry), but once a week Midge rides with Joel downtown to the Gaslight in Greenwich Village where he’s trying to start a career in comedy.
The nexus between the Jewish Upper West Side and the bohemian Village is the central see-saw of this story, with stopovers in a midtown delicatessen and a Garment District factory.
A key thing happens in the first episode: Joel bombs during a performance and Midge finds out that he’s been stealing jokes from a Bob Newhart routine. As we in the audience have by now noticed, it’s actually Midge who is the funny one.
Joel can’t handle the embarrassment and decides to walk out on Midge. (That, plus he’s schtupping his secretary.) He’s a bonafide putz, but as it happens in rich television series (and sometimes real life), you’ll eventually feel a bit sorry for him. But when Joel splits that’s when Midge grabs a bottle of kosher wine, heads down to the Gaslight herself and kills.
The remainder of the series follows Midge stumbling her way through a nascent comedy career, while trying to keep it secret from her family. The family, meanwhile, tries to keep her separation secret from everyone else. There are as many complications as there are great roles for some of our favorite Jewish actors: Kevin Pollack, David Paymer, Wallace Shawn and most importantly Alex Borstein.
In the context of the story Borstein’s Susie Meyerson, the very masculine-looking, leather suspenders-wearing talent booker at the Gaslight, is Midge’s mentor and would-be manager. In show dynamics she’s the Costanza to her Seinfeld. She’s a runaway train of invective, a prickly, nasty tornado of commentary that just can not stop telling jokes. There’s a sequence in which the flophouse denizen first visits Midge’s Riverside Drive “classic six” and unleashes battery of class-based dissbombs one would need ten Iron Domes to deflect. It’s hilarious.
Who am I kidding? Every scene is hilarious. And so many of the jokes are rooted in Judaism. There’s an Ethel Rosenberg zing in this thing that knocked me off the couch, plus what is probably television’s first sight gag centered on a mezuzah.
Luke Kirby co-stars as Lenny Bruce, who acts as something of a spiritual force through many of the episodes. He does a version of the classic “Jewish/Goyish” routine (shot on location at the Village Vanguard!) that is spot on. Comedy scholars: prepare to lose your mind, as this show has references to Nicholas and May, Redd Foxx, “party albums” and, well, the whole damn thing is sort’ve based off of Joan Rivers.
It isn’t just the Jewish jokes (or its explicit feminism) that excites me so much about this show. There is a Jewish-ness to its storytelling. An example, from late in the series (so I will dance around some plot points):
Shalhoub’s Professor Abe Weissman runs into a synagogue once services have already started. The old man next to him asks where his wife and daughter are. Abe shrugs, looks upset. (They’ve had a quarrel.) The old man whispers, as if he knows the darkest, most important secret: “The Rabbi has a cold.” Then Mrs. Weissman rushes in, upset. She doesn’t know where Midge is either. Finally, she arrives, and wearing a new fur coat. The mother whispers “where did you get that coat?” Midge prevaricates.
They start bickering, louder and louder, until everyone in the sanctuary stops to stare as the shouting and curses echo throughout the chamber. Finally, a sound. The Rabbi sneezes. The old man turns to Abe: “I told you.”
This isn’t just a scene in a television show. This is shtetl humor from the Old Country by way of great storytellers from a bygone era. It isn’t told, it’s shown; it’s Mrs. Maisel’s natural habitat, we are merely observers. Reader, when I watched this scene I did not laugh, I cried.
When you love something as much as I love “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” that means, of course, you can criticize it. Some naysayers (and while I’ve seen very few, they exist) are quick to point out its anachronistic tone.
There is some truth to this. Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge has the buoyancy and exuberance of Ginger Rogers, though one who breaks into a “tight ten” instead of a dance routine. Her style of comedy, however, is very modern. I guess it has to be for this to work as anything other than a sealed time capsule.
The problem comes when Midge encounters period comedy (like watching Red Skelton from the kitchen of the Copacabana) and while she is enthusiastic, the truth is that much of it comes off as … square.
There are some other red flags, small dialogue moments like shouting “nerd alert!” or even how everyone says “Yom Key-pour” when I am 99 percent certain these characters would have said “Yom KIP-ur.” But watch this show for longer than five minutes and tell me it’s worth making a fuss! In addition to being quick-witted and unpredictable, the characters get under your skin without you noticing it.
By the end of the first season there are genuine emotions mixed in with the routines and barbs (“pot roast is Methodist brisket,” to offer one of a thousand examples) that have their roots not just in being silly, but from the frustration of being a genius in a time when women were there to make babies and keep house.
The first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a thing of wonder and perfection, and the final ten minutes of episode eight had me sweating more than “Dunkirk.” If the show were to end now, dayenu. But there’s an even better ending: season two is already in production. Marvelous.