Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Not-So-Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[This post contains spoilers. The producers of the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel spoiled the show, but, this post will spoil whatever they didn’t spoil.]

How do you ruin a perfectly charming comedy? Simple. You turn it into a feminist morality play. You take a perfectly sympathetic character and turn her into a self-centered narcissist, absorbed in her sometime career and tone deaf to everyone around her.

You show her ignoring and neglecting her children, ignoring her family, running out on a fiance… and feeling triumphant. That is another way of saying that in season two of her show Midge Maisel becomes a feminist.

In that she is preceded by her mother Rose. In the first of the season’s episodes the perfectly sensible Rose picks up from her good life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, life as wife and mother and grandmother, and debarks for Paris. Her husband Abe immediately flies over, gets caught up in the Paris spirit, but still drags her back to New York.

What was the point of it? Simply put, Rose was suffering from what Betty Friedan, several years later,  would call “the problem that has no name.” You see, Rose was unfulfilled by her roles. She needed to have a career. Or, she needed to get in touch with her decadent side. She needed, as her daughter will, to throw everything aside in order to abandon all of her responsibilities to pursue a fantasy.

We note that 1950s Paris was suffering from a generalized depression brought on by the fact that it, among great powers, sat out World War II after surrendering to Nazi Germany and forming a collaborationist government. Decadence can be fun. Cowardice cannot.

Idealizing the French seems especially tone deaf. As for the American role in World War II… we managed to liberate France from Nazi occupation and also from French collaborators. For which we have been summarily reviled.

As for Mrs. Maisel, she is generally charming and pretty, full of wit and spirit. She struggles to make it in comedy… a profession chosen by the producers because once upon a time Christopher Hitchens wrote that women aren’t really funny. Good move, making a television series in order to refute a point.

Anyway, the otherwise funny Mrs. Maisel does have one grotesque slip-up. As a guest at a Roman Catholic wedding, in the presence of the priest and assembled members of the Church, she stands up to do her comedy routine… and grossly insults the bride, the groom, the church and the priest. It is tone-deaf, insulting and disgraceful. Since we are presumably supposed to find Midge somewhat sympathetic, this episode drains the sympathy from her character. You wonder where that all came from… and you do not know…. The show drops the subject and offers no explanation and no expression of remorse.

And then there are the Catskills. Several cringe-provoking episodes take us to a region north of New York, where Jewish New Yorkers often spent weekends or apparently even summers. For my part, I found the presentation of this slice of New York Jewish life to be a vulgar caricature, designed for ridicule. For me it smacked of anti-Semitism. The episodes in the Catskills added nothing to the plot or character development, except perhaps to show a world that Mrs. Maisel needed to escape from.

Throughout her madcap antics, Midge Maisel shows herself to be the model of a bad mother. She is detached from her children, disinterested in them, happy to dump them with her mother or with her ex-husband. One might say that she will walk away from motherhood, but she was never really involved in it at all. One notes that the showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino does not seem to have children.

The show is saying that there is nothing wrong with mothers who neglect and abandon their children. Perhaps it will show Midge suffering from her decision in the next season. And one imagines that it is portraying a character, not making an ideological point. And yet, when your central character, somewhat sympathetic throughout, is never shown to care for her children, abandonment is almost redundant.

You might say that it is good that the producers make the point that women who found liberation in the time of Betty Friedan neglected their children. We will see whether or not the show portrays negative consequences to her actions or will show it all working out well. And, we will want to know how the children turn out….

Writing in the Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert picks up the way the show makes motherhood seem like an obstacle to fulfillment. And, she notes that when Midge decides on the spur of the moment to go off for six months on tour with a rock star, she is also be abandoning her engagement to her new beau, a New York physician who is presented as a perfect Jewish husband. Making such a decision in a few minutes makes Midge a fool... nothing more or less. Spontaneity is largely overrated.

Of course, part of what makes her fiance Benjamin perfect is that he is perfectly malleable… he seems to be willing to agree to whatever she wants. He is, as they say, too perfect to be real. Anyway, Midge is going to abandon him to fulfill her career. The show might want to make this turn out well, but in reality it almost never does.

Gilbert observes it thusly:

It suggested that Midge will eventually choose comedy not only over love, but also over family.

Given how cavalierly Midge has treated motherhood over the series so far, this might not seem like much of a sacrifice. Her kids, Ethan and baby Esther, are fobbed off on her parents, dropped off with babysitters, left with the housekeeper, abandoned to holiday-camp staffers, and sometimes forgotten about completely. In the second-season episode where Midge and her parents go to the Catskills, Esther is left in a hot car by herself until Midge yells for someone to bring her in along with the rest of the luggage. Parenting, or a lack thereof, is a running joke in the show. Amy Sherman-Palladino was born in 1966, a few years after Esther; it’s possible she’s making a point about casual Boomer attitudes toward raising children, modern helicopter parenting, or both.

Good observation… but it is not about being casual… it is about being grossly irresponsible as a parent.

Gilbert describes Midge’s moment of liberation… her embrace of solitude.

Her life with Benjamin, a second marriage with the possibility of new children, represents one thing; her life with Susie, performing and traveling and having the nightly thrill of a new audience, represents another. It’s not just that the two lives aren’t compatible—to Midge, they don’t even meet to share space on her biographical Venn diagram. When she watches Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) sing “All Alone,” a wistful bit the real Bruce delivered about the end of a relationship, her realization is cemented. “I can’t go back to Jell-O molds,” Midge tells her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Joel. “There won’t be three [kids] before 30 for me. I just made a choice. I am gonna be all alone for the rest of my life. That’s what I just decided in a five-minute phone call.”

At a time when the nation is suffering under what some have called an epidemic of loneliness, it is useful to have some a sense of where it has come from. It is useful to see that irresponsible behavior, induced by ideology, mightily contributed to it.

We might be interested in finding out how it all works out for Midge Maisel. More than likely, people will not. For an aspiring comedian, someone who is supposed to be charming, these behaviors show her to be irresponsible, suffering from arrogant grandiosity and distinctly uncharming.

There comes a time when you simply no longer care what happens to her. I suspect that the producers just about reached that point. Sad story… for them and for Mrs. Maisel. Remember, sad stories are not funny. They are not the stuff of comedy.

Gilbert said that Midge had made a gratifying decision. It reminded me of Thelma and Louise, driving off a cliff, thinking that they could fly.


David Foster said...

"We note that 1950s Paris was suffering from a generalized depression brought on by the fact that it, among great powers, sat out World War II after surrendering to Nazi Germany and forming a collaborationist government. Decadence can be fun. Cowardice cannot."

French 'cowardice' in WWII is greatly overstated. France did declare war on Nazi Germany and did resist the invasion, losing approximately 100,000 *killed* in the brief campaign of 1940. This is out of a much smaller population base than the United States.

I've written about France and the campaign of 1940, here:

David Foster said...

See also this article on French soldiers in 1940:

Cheryl said...

Frankly, I found Mrs Mai8sel boring just couldn't go beyond the 3rd episode. Just not funny watching an entitled narcissist having her way.

trigger warning said...

Every video (TV) series has a watch-by date. Writers eventually run out of gas and interesting material unless they adopt a soap opera model. My personal Greatest Eventual Disappointments were "Breaking Bad" and "Foyle's War".

sestamibi said...

@trigger warning

It's called "jumping the shark".

Sam L. said...

I had never heard of this show. I shall certainly never watch it.