If it’s December, it must be time for another season of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The show has arrived in time for the holiday season like clockwork, three years running. This makes sense thematically; “Maisel” is a family-friendly, charmingly retro comedy series, perfect to fill the coming vacation days. But as the show has progressed, so have its ambitions. This season, the title character, Miriam "Midge" Maisel, heads out on a comedy tour to take America by storm. The good news is “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is still delightful. But as the creative team behind the series, the Sherman-Palladinos, attempt to stretch beyond their comfort zone, the results are somewhat mixed.
But as the show has progressed, so have its ambitions. This season, the title character, Midge Maisel, heads out on a comedy tour to take America by storm.
Season one’s story of a 1950s New York City housewife who is inspired to try stand-up comedy by her philandering would-be comic husband was the surprise hit of 2017. But season two stalled somewhat. Midge seemed afraid of taking the obvious next step, leaving her comfortable Jewish enclave and going on tour. Midge’s hesitation seemed to reflect the writers’ inability to move on as well. After all, the show worked best as a recreation of a certain time and place, a fact made clear by an ill-advised trip to Paris in the show’s season two premiere.
By the end of the season, however, everyone had committed: Season three would see Midge leave New York as the opening act for Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), an African American crooner. In doing so, she would leave parents, apartment and both ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and current love interest Benjamin behind.
But Midge isn’t exactly running out the door. The show doesn’t leave the Big Apple until halfway through episode three, once again showing an unwillingness to really let the character out of the beautiful world made for her. But once Midge and her manager, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), finally board that plane to Vegas, it turns out there’s quite a bit of material to play with. Neither character realizes how sheltered they’ve been until they find themselves trying to cobble together a mainstream comedy routine 2,000 miles from home.
This season really gets going when the tour hits Miami, the other major Jewish enclave of the East Coast in the mid-20th century. The show’s arrival in episode five — complete with a swimming lesson, star-filled episode of “Late Night Miami,” and visit from the parents — makes for one of the funniest hours of the season.
But Midge’s parents are also one of the show’s issues. Midge may be gone from New York, but Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose (Marin Hinkle) are not, and neither is Susie’s other client, Sophie (Jane Lynch). This means Susie must return home regularly, even when the show isn’t wandering over to check in on the Weissmans’ antics. The latter both lose their sources of income this season, and are forced to move in with Joel’s parents, Moishe and Shirley Maisel, in Queens. It’s not that these scenes aren’t funny. Shalhoub, once again, will be in the running for an Emmy, as will Hinkle. But it takes the show into the realm of ensemble comedy.
And the involvement of Joel’s parents also, for unknown reasons, means we still have to deal with Joel himself. It remains a mystery why the show cares about Midge’s ex. And yet he’s everywhere, with his own storyline about opening a comedy club, and a new love interest, Mei, played by Stephanie Hsu. It’s good to see the show attempt diversity. But if all they’re going to do is make jokes about gambling and Asian stereotypes, it’s not helpful. And Mei, it turns out, is a distraction. The show, once again, cannot move on from Joel and Midge, sending him out to Vegas for developments that are as groan-inducing as they are funny.
It’s a bit odd that no one mentions the fact that both Baldwin and Maisel are touring in the midst of the Civil Rights era.
Susie is also a reminder of the show’s limitations, in a different way. We spend quite a bit of time with her sans Midge as a sparring partner. This means the show’s unwillingness to touch Susie’s sexuality, other than as a running “mistaken for a man” gag, becomes more and more glaring. And then there’s Baldwin and his manager, Reggie (Sterling K. Brown). Both are welcome additions to a show that has been painfully white, and a party at Baldwin’s gives the show an opportunity to make jabs how white men steal the material of black artists. But even these moments are couched only in humor — and fleeting to boot. Reggie’s steely character may grumble about being saddled with a “floofy white lady” for the opening act, but the show doesn’t let such apparent resentments play out, preferring to have Midge paper over them with a good brisket.
Also, it’s a bit odd that no one mentions the fact that both Baldwin and Maisel are touring in the midst of the Civil Rights era. Other than a few wisecracks, the show seems utterly unwilling to go there. The show is just too intent on being a fluffy period piece.
On the other hand, watching Midge move on up in the world is what fans crave, and there’s plenty of that this season. There’s also plenty of long atmospheric scenes, like a five-minute tap dance routine and a slow stare down over drinks in a Cuban-themed Miami club. The showrunners love to let viewers luxuriate in the recreation of time and place. As long as “Maisel” keeps doing that, fans will never truly complain, as that’s where the show’s heart lies. It’s just a shame this world can only go so far.