She’s a Stand-Up Gal

The most potent form of nostalgia is for a time you never knew in a place you do and imagine was at its peak before you came along. For me, that would be the 1950s in New York City, set to the cool, light strain of the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” I can never get enough of the cultural examples of the day—made-on-location potboiler movies about career girls, dated bestselling novels about the advertising business that once occupied paperback racks next to the giant phone booths in every drugstore, the original cast albums of the great Broadway musicals.

It has ever been thus. I was born in 1961 in Manhattan, and my early memories are of the divine remnants of the 1950s being washed away as I grew—second-rate restaurants that required formal dress for children, men in hats smoking cigarettes in movie-palace lobbies, my older sisters attending charm school and walking around our apartment with books balanced on their noggins, plump Checker cabs that could fit six in the back whose middle-aged Jewish drivers would tell your parents about their Catskills bungalow and their daughter at Cornell.

So when I say that the new Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—the first eight-episode season of which is set in a fairyland 1958 Manhattan in which all the colors are bright, the weather is good, and even Lenny Bruce is a nice guy exuberantly delighted just to be there to drink it all in—is the most wonderful thing to have happened in my life since the birth of my third child, you should know the background and judge my opinion accordingly.

If I go too far, and I do, maybe you can believe me when I say The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an unabashedly delightful and entirely original confection. The show, just awarded a Golden Globe for comedy, tells the story of Miriam, a happily married 26-year-old mother of two with a young executive husband who dabbles in stand-up comedy. She is a beautiful and funny dynamo of a Jewish girl living in a lovely Upper West Side apartment three floors down from her loving and acerbic parents. She inadvertently discovers that her husband has been cribbing his act from Bob Newhart and challenges him to do his own stuff. Whereupon he bombs on stage at the comedy club in Greenwich Village—and then announces he’s leaving her for his secretary. Shattered and drunk, she wanders back into the club and onto the stage and begins to rant hilariously about him and his life. She tears the roof off the place, and suddenly Mrs. Maisel—raised only to be a wife and mother—has a show-business calling to pursue.

All this happens in the first episode. The rest of the series charts the evolution both of her odd career (which no one in her regular life knows about) and her tentative steps into a post-married life she never sought. Everything is changing subtly around her. She finds herself in Washington Square Park listening to a local activist named Jane Jacobs protesting a Robert Moses plan to build an expressway in lower Manhattan. Her academic mathematician father is hired by Bell Labs to do what we understand to be the originating work of the digital age. And Miriam finds herself amongst the beatnik poets and folk musicians who are the augurs of the 1960s to come.

None of that is heavy-handed or portentous. It’s all atmospherics—the invocation of a glamorized, idealized past. Creator-writer-director Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose most notable prior credit was The Gilmore Girls, fills the proceedings with cracklingly witty (although over-profane) dialogue and gloriously swirling camerawork reminiscent of the 1950s musicals of Vincente Minnelli. This is not a show about cultural revolution. It’s more like a really, really smart Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie set among the Semites.

On religiously Jewish matters, Sherman-Palladino makes dozens of stupid errors large and small, which usually ruins things like this for me. But on culturally Jewish matters, she’s letter perfect.

And the show is anchored by one of the best small-screen comic female performances I’ve ever seen. How Rachel Brosnahan, a 26-year-old Gentile from the Chicago suburbs best known for playing a hooker on House of Cards, came to embody an educated, midcentury Upper West Sider in voice, accent, word, and gait with such eerie perfection—I’ve known Miriam Maisels all my life, and she’s all of them rolled into one—is a thrilling mystery. Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote Rachel Brosnahan the part of a lifetime, and Brosnahan returned the favor by making The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel an unending delight. I want to live inside the show. I suspect you will too.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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