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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, streaming on Amazon Prime, constantly teeters on turning quite cynical—but never does. And considering the setting—a housewife breaking into the New York comedy scene (and show business) in the 1950s—that’s pretty impressive.
Season 1 mused on whether it would be possible for Miriam Maisel’s marriage to survive her comedic career. The big questions season 2 asks: Does success in show business require total independence? Must one be all alone to make truly great art?
Despite that heavy theme, the show stays solidly upbeat, with many sweet moments. It may border on the same time period, but Maisel is no Mad Men; in fact, it may be the antidote.
This season has none of the first season’s shock-value nudity, but it retains the near-constant bad language. There are also plenty of bawdy sex jokes, about as bad as you might find from one of Shakespeare’s raunchier characters, and a singing performance by drag queens in the first episode. Miriam (Rachel Brosnahan) starts seeing another man while separated from—but still married to—her husband.
Otherwise, this season surpasses the first, which won four Emmys, including best comedy and best actress, and was nominated for several Golden Globes. The show uses color, costumes, show tunes, and even historical figures deftly. It also crosses artistic boundaries, experimenting (with great success) with cinematography methods typically seen only in movies. Certain scenes, like one when Miriam’s family moves into their summer cottage, will surely be used as a master class in timing for writers and actors on stage or screen. Just as Miriam uses recurring bits onstage in her set, the show and the viewer share long-running, relatable jokes, like Miriam’s manager Susie (Alex Borstein) fighting with the phone company over her bill.
The character of Miriam, too, is masterfully written by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, creators of Gilmore Girls, and acted by Brosnahan, who leans into each line as if she is on a small theater stage, and not waiting around for a camera to zoom in on any subtleties.
Although Miriam struggles to break into a man’s world—after all, she gets booted from one club for talking about pregnancy—she really doesn’t have to work to support herself. That means she has nothing to lose, except her familial relationships. From her privileged position, she is often clueless about the realities of life for women without the same resources she has.
But she’s not ashamed of her upbringing, or of her femininity. Miriam’s tremendous likability—both for us as a character and for her 1950s audience as a comedienne—comes from her unique combination of wit, naïveté, and willingness to question. Even after complimenting a drag queen’s "curves," she muses into the microphone: “It’s not enough, now, for women to have to compete with other women? Men are getting in on the act too?” Then the very Maisel punch line: “You can’t have it all. You can’t run the world and have all the pretty underwear too.”