Funny Girl

Watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon.

The first half of the new series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, now on Amazon Video as part of their free “pilot season,” is pretty much what you’d expect from a venture by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. The production design is fantastic, the talking is fast, the characters are cartoonish, and what plot there is consists mostly of people being nice to each other basically without interruption. It’s a familiar setup—the titular midcentury wife (Rachel Brosnahan) who seems almost overly supportive of her husband (Michael Zegen) and children—and watching it, you keep waiting for the axe to fall. Betty left Don on Mad Men, Libby left Bill on Masters of Sex. We all cheered. We went to sleep.

The reckoning’s a long time coming, though. With its bold musical soundtrack, taking pages from Nora Ephron and Wes Anderson in equal measure, and its so-clean-you-can-eat-off-it facsimile of 1958 New York, it’s something between a musical and a Lucille Ball-era sitcom. Men are oblivious, women are hyper-verbal doers. The Jewish characterizations are broad but not quite lazy. For some reason, Tony Shahloub is in it. Trouble is nowhere in sight—the closest thing to indignation is when Miriam Maisel discovers her old ball and chain, a marketing executive and aspiring comedian, is stealing his act from Bob Newhart. “When I found out June Freedman used my meatloaf recipe,” she says, “I almost stabbed her in the eye with a fork.” (Paging Lorelai Gilmore.) It actually catches you off-guard when the change of heart in this whole antiseptic setup doesn’t come from Miriam Maisel at all but her husband, Joel, who has a bad set at the Gaslight and ups and abandons his family. We’ve all been there.

Suddenly everything is arrayed against Miriam to an almost terrifying degree; her world is arranged in degrees of unmindful cruelty, from her image-conscious parents (Shahloub and Marin Hinkle), who live two floors above her on Riverside Drive, to her condescending best friend, Imogene (Bailey De Young), who, planning for a trip below 14th Street, trills, “I’m gonna wear a beret!” Confronted with all this, Miriam, naturally, gets drunk on Manischewitz and runs down to the Village to do a quick spur-of-the-moment comedy routine of her own, and an attendant at the Gaslight (Alex Borstein) tells her she’s the best thing since Mort Sahl. Cue new career and new outlook on life.

Thus shines a by-the-book pilot in a weary world. The conceit of deep trauma translating to a great set (comic, musical, or otherwise) is becoming harder and harder to scan (see Funny People or Obvious Child or Sleepwalk with Me or Crashing on HBO—this is what we in the business call fatigue). It’s tired, and it’s a waste of the potential Sherman-Palladino creates with the world-building in which she engages in the first half of the episode. This sheltered, self-sustaining Jewish bubble on the Upper West Side, where four years is somehow long enough to develop a relationship with a butcher that lets you cut the line in a New York deli, is really and truly likeable in a way that feels very reminiscent of the Gilmores’ Star Hollow. It feels odd wanting a show to lean more on atmosphere, but, you know, peak TV—here we are.

If you’re looking for a salve for post-Mad Men blues, you’re in the wrong place; the Draper divorce makes the Maisel split look like a Caribbean vacation, and the show’s emotional depth is pretty constant throughout, though its wit is top-form. But Brosnahan (late of House of Cards) is consistently brilliant, and when Sherman-Palladino, who directed the first episode, frames her in the doorway of the now-uselessly-decorated dining room for a Yom Kippur that isn’t to be, it’s clear the show knows how to use her. The question is, where do we go from here? Amazon promoting pilot season as an event separate from the actual release of their shows, which themselves are usually relatively under-advertised, could be counterintuitive here. Stopping in to see a comic with a personal style who’s funny enough, you may not leave halfway through the set. But whether you’ll be dropping by the club every week is another matter entirely.