The Problem with the Third Season of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The new season’s plot unfolds. A review.
Posted Jan 05, 2020
First, I must say I was a total devotee of Seasons 1 and 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (TMMM). Its litany of awards is perhaps a better testimony to the show.
But Season 3 of TMMM? In short, too much entertainment, not enough storyline and comedic routines, and its (non-comedic) disparagements. More about these below.
The new season’s plot unfolds: Midge (Miriam) Maisel (the indomitable Rachel Brosnahan) gets the opportunity to go on national, then international tour as the opening act for Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), a black ballad singer. With three back-up singers, a full orchestra, his million-dollar smile, and sweet, tenor voice, he upstages not just the club performances but Mrs. Maisel as well. His screen time as a vocalist and then as a tortured soul is big. And because he is really good, his character often derails the TMMM storyline and its heretofore superb comedy. Shy may capture some viewers' hearts, but not those who adore Midge Maisel, with her complex and dysfunctional family, her unfailing determination, and the backdrop of New York in the '50s, exploding with post-war opportunity (for many, but not all).
Plus, Abe, Mrs. Maisel’s dad (Tony Shalhoub), is rendered as a total fool. But not the King Lear version, which would be more worthy of his acting. Instead, a gaggle of collegiate, Marxist characters turn his head around, or should I say, aground? These are preposterous caricatures whose hypocrisy drips on the screen, adding to Abe’s degradation. Perhaps, Mr. Shalhoub could have said no to what did not even amount to a good farce—but what do I know about the vagaries of acting. Abe’s “transformation” goes from being a Columbia math professor living in a (University supported) glorious, Upper West Side apartment to being unemployed and without housing.
Abe and Rose, his wife, move in with the in-laws, New York garment makers: Moise (Kevin Pollak) and his wife, Shirley (Caroline Aaron), into their oversized, Queens home. This is clearly a lower social station (and location) for Abe and Rose, redoubled by jokes about the deadly fate of Midge and Joel’s 5-year-old going to (elementary) school in that “outer borough”, instead of in prestigious Manhattan.
To make matters worse, Midge’s ex-husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), is opening a nightclub in Chinatown. Nothing wrong with that except the show stigmatizes Chinese people: It portrays them either as compulsive, secretive gamblers, or crooked power brokers, including Mei (Stephanie Hsu), his new romantic interest. Throw in another band as more entertainment, playing at his newly opened club, which is only momentarily saved by Mrs. Maisel’s (too short) stand-up routine, studded with the comedic sweet spots that marriage, family, conflict, and love all invite.
Amy Sherman-Palladino, the show’s creative director, displayed her exceptional powers of choreography in the first episode of Season 2. The show opens with seven minutes of cameras rolling continuously, of a tight close-up of more than a dozen women at the phone switchboard of B. Altman (then a popular department store where Midge worked). That scene was a ballet of ladies on chairs with wheels. Its musical lyrics, if you will, included the phone greeting: “How can I help you?” Midge Maisel was ready on the spot to solve the world’s problems, small and big, including those faced by phone operators, a metaphor, perhaps, for the communication revolution ahead. This switchboard set was a composition of stunning comedic movement. Watch it, you will see what I mean.
But, for reasons that I don’t know (but wonder about as a psychiatrist), Ms. Sherman-Palladino seems to have lost her way with this third season. Regaled by honors, what’s a creative producer to do to sustain the show’s enormous success? It's a big wall to climb. Her way over it seems to have been by reviving her talents as a choreographer. She has turned away from what she had achieved in Seasons 1 and 2. I needed encouragement from a friend to keep watching after a couple of episodes.
Those first two episodes of Season 3 are overloaded with song and dance. I love song and dance. But this show previously had moved to a different, unique, and fresh step. I missed the comic motif and familial narrative, hardly to be seen, buried under the avalanche of singing, dancing, and a meandering plotline.
Midge’s agent, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), however, has not lost her stage power. One great moment is her soliloquy, whereby confronting her new client (who just bombed on Broadway), Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch), we witness the purity of female friendship. It’s a mitzvah (an act of kindness true to the duties that faith calls for).
The Season 3 episodes that re-embed the famed comedian, Lenny Bruce (an irresistible Luke Kirby), are welcome jolts that restore some of the show’s high-voltage battery power. Mr. Bruce, lauded for his brilliant irreverence, died in 1966 from an opioid overdose. He was said to have claimed, and I paraphrase, that “…taking heroin was like touching the hand of God.” No more of him ahead if there is a fourth season.
When the eighth, and last, episode of this third season unfolds, the theme of women coming into their own becomes more center stage. Midge, of course. Her best girlfriend, Imogene (Bailey De Young), also alienated from her philandering husband, finds her agency as a woman and sets off to be more than a frilly housewife. And Rose, Midge’s mom (Marin Hinkle), realizes that life for a woman need not be, should not be, (only) at the service of family and home. Susie has already proved her mettle.
As this third season fades into its closing scene, what’s ahead for this show and its cast are left wide open. We are thrown back and forth from the past (the Upper West Side apartment Midge has regained) to an uncertain future, where, on an airport tarmac, Mrs. Maisel and Susie are left behind by Shy and his entourage.
The show now has entered the era of the 1960s. The western world, in America, is about to erupt—to confront a myriad of social inequities and political quagmires (that remain alive today). What’s to become of Mrs. Maisel, Susie, and the rest of this artful crew? I hope that a fourth season is produced. Even if the comedic writers are not once again given hegemony over the script, at least the music and entertainment of the '60s will reflect its turbulence and cries for change.
Dr. Lloyd Sederer's latest book, now in paperback, is The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs (Scribner, 2018)