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AMAZON’S HIT JEWISH DRAMEDY NEEDS A FEW HECKLERS
by Alessio Franko
MY LATE GRANDFATHER, who left us only a few weeks ago, was a serial joke-teller. My favorite from his repertoire is about two Jewish men who pass a church that is offering $10,000 to anyone who will convert. One of the men, who has been struggling to feed and clothe his family, can’t turn it down and goes in. When he emerges twenty minutes later, his friend asks: “Did you really go through with it?”
“I did. I’m a Catholic now,” the man replies.
“And you got the money?” his friend goes on.
Outraged, the man shouts back: “Is MONEY all you people THINK ABOUT?!”
It’s a joke that crystallizes one of Jewish humor’s subtlest and most compelling motifs, that self-delusion is the cost of our survival as a people (think also of the one about the German rabbi who reads Der Stürmer every day because he loves seeing headlines about how the Jews are poised to take over the world). While Jewish humor continues to thrive -- nay, reign -- in American popular media, it is nonetheless rare to see the tradition recontextualized, explored through the sort of explicitly Jewish characters or stories that would allow such core themes to surface. Yet Amazon Studios’ newest series sets out to do just that.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, written and directed by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, tells the story of Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), who finds her calling in stand-up comedy after her picture-perfect life as a homemaker in 1958 Manhattan falls apart. Amid overwhelmingly positive audience response to the pilot episode, Amazon has greenlit two full seasons of the series. Though this is a bold move by Amazon, their show has unambiguous appeal. Mrs. Maisel soars as a period piece, treating us to lush, starchy costumes and delightfully postwar, Upper West Side apartments. Flashbacks of Midge’s goyishe college life at Bryn Mawr are clearly shot on the real campus, its gothic skyline anchoring us in space as we are sent back in time. Effectively integrating comedy into the drama format, the pilot produces clever, heady laughs out of nowhere, bringing us into an almost Talmudic world in which nothing is too big or too small to be commented on. (Some of the quips, however, demonstrate a retrograde insensitivity in order to evoke the 1950s zeitgeist, with offhand gags about weight, eating disorders, and -- unlikely for the era -- the Gestapo, taking us out of the illusion of the show by being just a tad too deliberate.)
With a compact supporting cast to bounce off, Rachel Brosnahan carries the show, and is hard not to adore in the role of Midge as she basks in her perfect life with every word and every gesture. Standing at the microphone at her own wedding party to make a speech full of grinning self-deprecation, we instantly recognize her as an avatar of Jewish comedy, more so than she herself realizes. The first time she comes up with a capital-J “Joke” that tickles her, Brosnahan takes us wordlessly through amusement, pride, and -- finally -- ambition. Of course, dutiful wife that she is, she is only coming up with jokes so that her husband Joel (Michael Zegen), can use them in his own act. The show thus lays the modern feminist viewer over a barrel: For Midge, empowerment and acquiescence to 1950s patriarchal culture are one and the same. Do we support her in the happiness she has worked so hard for? Or do we root for her make a break from a culture that quashes her potential?
CURIOUSLY, THE PILOT episode stops short of letting Midge weigh these two options for herself. The collapse of her marriage is her chance to confront nasty self-delusion and realize that “perfect” happiness is a false promise. Yet her character stagnates, neither moving toward this epiphany nor digging herself into deeper denial. It rings hollow when her scandalized socialite parents (Marin Hinkle and Tony Shaloub) excoriate her with a cruelty that penetrates the screen, yet she still responds exclusively in one-liners. Just because Midge is a comedian at heart doesn’t mean that everything in her life is an opportunity to crack wise. Perhaps it’s a narrow understanding of Jewish humor that limits Brosnahan’s ability to convey how Midge feels, either about her place in society or the comedy career she’s about to stumble into. Hinkle and Shaloub’s characters truly are monsters -- shallow, self-absorbed, even violent -- and that Midge’s own two children have zero presence on the show except when being played for laughs sadly suggests that she may be on track to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
It is always a pleasure to watch a character embark on a journey towards becoming her truest self, but for a woman in the 1950s, such a journey is surely going to entail sacrifice. In neglecting to highlight the spiritual and material costs of Midge’s pursuit of stand-up, Sherman-Palladino squanders the story’s historical basis in the interest of blithe nostalgia. And while Midge’s wealthy background does not invalidate her struggles as a Jewish woman, the writing uncritically prioritizes an upper-class perspective, or simply relies on the viewer to provide the critique. Midge and her family belittle and bark at their employees. The bohemian East Village is toothlessly lampooned and exoticized, more of a place for Midge to conquer than to find home in. The script clumsily ducks the question of how either Midge’s father or Joel make their comfortable livings (“I take meetings, I make phone calls, I shuffle paper around, and I have no idea what the hell I actually do!”), and Joel pays homage to the classic “Aha!” joke that Jewish comedy buffs will recognize as the one in which a deli patron humiliates his waiter. In a world where Der Stürmer lives on as the Daily Stormer and we must still battle the noxious stereotypes it deals in, we have to ask ourselves whether we really need a high-profile Jewish story that can’t grapple with class.
Pilot episodes are, of course, notoriously bad exemplars of the series they go on to become. Every show needs to figure out what it wants to be, and Amazon’s enthusiastic plunge into two seasons gives Mrs. Maisel every opportunity to fill in the blanks left in its first hour. It already bodes well that the world-weary cabaret manager Susie (Alex Borstein) will be taking on a more central role. A layered character in her own right, she may prove just the countercultural foil Midge needs.
At the same time, the problems of the pilot seem lodged in Sherman-Palladino’s very vision of the show. Many of the story’s tensions tie back to a big Yom Kippur break-fast that Midge is planning, but the pilot comes and goes without giving us that culminating scene. We don’t know what happened at break-fast or if it happened at all. It’s a scene that would have forced Midge to make a choice about how to present herself to her family, to high society, and to the Jewish community, and it’s too big of an omission to be a simple glitch. if Midge continues simply to breeze down the path to comedy stardom, the charms of the pilot will wear out quickly.
With the critically and socially relevant Transparent under its belt, Amazon, an edgy studio that openly accepts pitches from anyone on its website, is primed to become a boundary-pushing force in American TV. But while Mrs. Maisel has the potential to be their next progressive splash, it so far signals more complacency than boundary-breaking. Mrs. Maisel owes quite a lot to Transparent , as both series are, as Transparent ’s creator describes their series, about “unlikeable Jewish people.” Jewish characters have as much right to be unlikeable as any other, but how many shows like this does Amazon intend to produce? Because if the numbers are to be believed, audiences are lining up around the corner to dislike Jewish people. As it stands, that’s the real punchline.
Alessio Franko is a Brooklyn-based writer of teleplays and radio plays. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago.