The cutting phrase “a little too on-the-nose” gets tossed around a lot these days. It can cover everything from a song, a speech, a scene in a film or even just a line in a novel — any creative endeavor where artistic perfection can nevertheless ring false. Television is certainly packed these days with shows that are so fully realized and sharply produced that they become too full, too sharp and, often enough, too on-the-nose. Of all the problems there can be with a new TV show, I’ll take too-perfect over trite and boring any day.
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new eight-episode series for Amazon, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is so on-the-nose it comes with its own complimentary adjective in the title.
Visually, it’s also a treat for you midcentury nostalgia nuts, minus the “Mad Men”-style gloom and doom. Set in late-1950s Manhattan with an extravagant and vivid attention to detail, the show is about 26-year-old Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan of “Manhattan” and “House of Cards”), a Jewish, Upper West Side housewife and Bryn Mawr alum, the overachieving daughter of Columbia University professor Abe Weissman (“Monk’s” Tony Shalhoub) and his prim wife, Rose (“Two and a Half Men’s” Marin Hinkle).
Midge married her dream beau, Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen), right after graduation and then what? Thanks to family connections, Joel got a corner-office job at a plastics firm while Midge keeps a pristine home in a spacious apartment that’s only three floors below her parents’ place.
The pitfalls of such a life are in fact the show’s strongest message: As a wife and mother (the Maisels have a toddler son and a baby daughter) who has cocooned herself in correctness and even waits until her husband is asleep to remove her makeup (which she then reapplies before his alarm goes off), Midge has set herself up for the shock that life is not always what it seems. She dotingly accompanies Joel down to amateur nights at a downstairs dive in the Village, where she bribes the manager with a Pyrex dish of home-cooked brisket to give her husband a turn on stage. Once there, Joel’s stand-up routines are nothing special — and stolen from LPs by more famous comedians.
Nevertheless, Midge loyally praises her husband’s attempts, right up until the moment he informs her that he’s having an affair with his ditsy secretary and wants a divorce. Enraged, Midge heads off in her housecoat to the nightclub, ostensibly to recover her missing Pyrex dish. In a drunken fit, she seizes the microphone and delivers her first unhinged routine about the real-life pain of dashed domestic dreams. After she bares her breasts to make a point, the cops barge in and arrest her.
Midge is bailed out by Susie Myerson (“Getting On’s” Alex Borstein), a tough-acting bartender who sees in Midge a potential to be the next big thing in comedy, maybe even the female version of Lenny Bruce. Yes, the Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), who becomes a friend of Midge’s after she bails him out of jail and he returns the favor by bailing her out of jail a few nights later, when she again gets arrested on trumped-up charges of indecent behavior onstage. A career in stand-up comedy, he warns her, is something that, “like cancer and God,” ought not to exist.
In the first four episodes made available for review (there are eight in Season 1, and Amazon has already ordered a second season), “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” never forgets that it is a comedic drama about the gift of being funny. It is jubilant and optimistic, even when the chips are supposed to be down. The fact that Midge must move with her kids back into her parents’ apartment is portrayed as more of a hilarious nuisance for all involved (Shalhoub and Hinkle are terrific as exasperated yet tolerant parents), while Sherman-Palladino wisely spends more energy downtown, as Midge and Susie take their first steps at developing and promoting an act built on the bitterness of a divorce.
There couldn’t be a better moment for a show to explore the sort of obstacles waiting for a young woman trying to break into comedy more than half a century ago — and it seems that “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” like this summer’s 1970s-set “I’m Dying Up Here” on Showtime, could confront them bluntly. In the wake of Louis C.K.’s admissions of sexual misconduct toward women who worked with him (or aspired to), the comedy business still struggles with its inherent sexism.
From Brosnahan’s ability to charm viewers into rooting for Midge (even when she leans on her uptown entitlement streak) to the rest of the cast’s endearing performances, “Mrs. Maisel” plays like one of those delightful and sunshiny movies that take place in the past, such as “My Favorite Year” or “A Christmas Story” or “That Thing You Do!” All of those committed the misdemeanor of being too on-the-nose, but made up for it with a genuine instinct for warmth. That’s how “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” succeeds, too.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel(eight episodes) is streaming on Amazon. (Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)