This season of Mrs. Maisel may seem a bit repetitive from season’s past though stick with it. There’s a solid lesson about failure to be had.
Before I begin my review, I want to talk a bit about a subject that’s important to me: failure.
Back in 2014, I was in a slump. My web series I’d written about millennials called ‘Generation Me’ had hit repeated setbacks, and my newly founded production company, ‘Artist Playground’ despite having written script-after-script for, was likewise dead in the water.
The past three years of my life felt like I was drifting just after I sank the boat that was originally going to be my academic career. The worst part was that most of these failures fell on things outside of my control. People I’d threw in my lot with. Don’t get me wrong, I love artists. We’re expressive and emotional sorts, but from my experience, we’re also not the most dependable.
Not until money gets involved anyway.
Now, college never taught me how to handle this situation. In school, you just had to put in the work and eventually, someone would cave in and bequeath your title or degree. And yes, people would drop out, but for the most part, efforts were often merited. Eventually, you got there. Especially, the more tuition money you threw at the problem.
But that’s not the real world.
When you fail at something in life you can’t always salvage the work, change a major, or remind your school that it needs to hit a graduation quota. Depending on the job, the work almost always comes at some sort of a cost and if you’re in the medical field, you might even kill someone.
In the real world, you just fail. You don’t get paid. You don’t win the prize. No participation trophies.
It’s something you have to be okay with that takes experience and time. Most importantly, you must learn from it. As the entertainment industry is filled with paths of failure.
At the time, I asked a friend of mine what to do after my multiple failed ventures. She told me to try and get better at comedy. That all you can do is get better. Be ready for the next opportunity.
So, I put myself out there, and with her suggestions, applied to the Upright Citizens Brigade. The same troupe that trains a lot of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumni. I lived close to the city and comedy, due to budgetary constraints, were usually the types of stories I’d already been producing on a microbudget basis. Workshop classes were also cheap in comparison to University or more schooling.
More than anything else they were practical and on my own time.
The class was sketch Comedy 101 and it met up once a week. I figured that I knew how to make a few friends laugh so this venture shouldn’t have been all that hard. My self-deprecating humor worked on people I’d known for years so I’d figured why not try my hand at scripting some.
Now, my classmates came from all different backgrounds and experiences. Most with exposure to some form of performance experience or improv, which was also tremendously popular at UCB. These folks knew how to escalate and pull off the punchline. Stay relevant but also organic. And though I wasn’t the best in the room, I was learning and getting better just by proximity and bouncing ideas around.
The sketches I’d ended up writing were at best, okay. They proved to be more rip-offs and referential anecdotes than anything else. I’d written a parody of Sherlock Holmes looking to find out who killed Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones, only to find out that it was George RR Martin (Since he loved killing your favorite things). Which I thought was very hilarious, but realized much later, wasn’t a joke as much as it is a statement. One that wasn’t all that inclusive to the audience… let alone, funny.
I’d also written a bit about a child playing with their feces and a ‘never-no’ parent who absolutely let it happen. Partially, because the child learnt it while accidentally walking in on mommy and daddy (which was my button, or high-point of the sketch). I’ll admit that bit was an absolute rip-off of an episode of ‘The League’ though with a lot dirtier jokes. Which to me and maybe ¼ of my class, found funny.
I’d also written a Miley Cyrus wrecking ball sketch parodying a set of popular bud light commercials at the time and an odd experience about what it would be like if you had the most polite and nicest taxi cab driver in the world… and how strange that would be in New York City.
Again, these jokes were pulling from things that had already been done before. And looking back, my problem was that rather than being in my own skin, dealing with my shit, and coming up with an original idea… I just googled and watched my favorite comedies. Poked fun at the things everyone else found funny with my own silly twists because I found them funny.
I recycled what I was comfortable with, which in my opinion, is not how you build comedy. It is though, notoriously good for academic research, which is something that took years to undo in that type of thinking. A few weeks into the class I realized sketch wasn’t for me. Mostly, because I couldn’t come up with an original idea in my head.
I didn’t know how to be comfortable with myself, and as a result, was too afraid of pitching an original comedic idea. It’s something I’m still very much working at.
But in the end, it was a good class and I learned a lot about format and structure and how to escalate tension for the sake of the joke. But for me, I wanted something more. I wanted the comedy tied together with the story, which wasn’t the point of sketch, as I’d learned the hard way.
But I’m happy I tried anyway.
I’m telling you all this because this is what this season’s ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ is all about: the vulnerability and admirability about taking the stage and finding the funny in the uncomfortable. How being a star in the spotlight means to be poked and prodded, bruised and broken… all while laughing about your own miserable flaws and fetishisms, like the soft furry handcuffs under the bed, or what you really did with that partially unscrewed jar of peanut butter everyone in the house has been using…
Okay, that was a joke. One of my jokes. Again, I’m not the best at this.
The point is, in Stand-Up comedy, you become both the product and the punchline. It’s not something everyone can easily embrace, as it’s a degree of vulnerability that’s oddly sympathetic but also, pathetic, and eerily funny.
So, when you’ve got a budding career going in entertainment, like Mrs. Maisel does in comedy, and everything is going right like how it does this season… there can always be hiccups, cancellations, or unforeseeable failures. Which hurts all that much more when you’re the product.
Because it feels like a complete failure of you as a person. And given everything built-up this season, it’s a pretty heavy loss that the show skillfully pulls the rug from underneath.
And I, as well anyone in entertainment, will tell you, having been through it: it’s hell. It’s hard to exist when despite your successes the other shoe can drop at any moment.
This season sees Midge on tour opening for Shy Baldwin. First at the USO show, and then at several locations on tour; Vegas and Florida, being the most important. Its unfamiliar grounds but Midge shakily adapts to her new role thanks to a lot of advice from new friends. As Shy’s opening comedy act, she slowly eases into a routine to win over the crowd and using her classic charm and wit, wins over the confidence of Shy’s crew and manager. Even, by midseason, becoming one of Shy’s personal confidants herself. Almost everyone sees Midge’s future on the horizon. It’s just a matter of when.
There is also a sweet meetup between her and Lenny Bruce, the acclaimed comedy legend whose life as we know, ended from overdose in the 1960s. In arguably the best episode of the season, while in Florida, the two have a sentimental meeting. She asks how well her performance was, and he acknowledges her skills, while also bringing her on as a guest on a late-night TV show meant for the ‘coolest in town’, followed by a late-night out on the town, implying the two really should be more than just friends.
Though all is not perfect. Midge struggles with life on the road, her relationship with Joel, and her parents, who are now apartmentless and somewhat bottoming out and figuring themselves out as well. Especially, once her mother Rose, rejects income from her sexist family’s trust fund – essentially cutting off what’s revealed to be the family’s primary means and source of luxury (Because there was no way Abe afforded a five-bedroom apartment, maid, and furnishings of that lavish lifestyle on a professor’s salary). But through it all, Midge rises above, in typical Midge Maisel fashion. She even puts in a conscientious effort into buying back her old apartment.
Susie, on the other hand, has a bit more of a rocky relationship with Midge this season. She gets a big opportunity to represent Sophie Lennon, the comedian who hates Midge but has established an empire for herself based on her comedic yokel character. When Sophie doubles down on having Susie as her manager, Susie juggles balancing her established new client and Midge, especially when Sophie demands to be taken more seriously as an actor. She goes all out for Sophie, getting her a private stage on Broadway, a team of producers, a co-leading actor (Gary Elwes, who is fantastic this season) and the lead in ‘Miss Julie’. It’s all fantastic and seems like a next break in her career, until Sophie gets cold feet and ruins her own act, breaking down and segueing into her usual standup routine, essentially ruining everything about the play and those who put the effort into helping her; in what’s easily the cringiest moment of this season. Susie also, while in Vegas, develops a gambling addiction that gets severely out of hand and learns a thing or two from Shy Baldwin’s manager. Then deals with a personal family issue.
Abe, now unemployed and having to give up his Colombia University apartment, tries to remember who he used to be before falling into the academic grind. He soon finds himself with a bunch of do-gooder communists rebelling in the 60s for the sake of… well, just rebelling. Together, they fail at starting a modern paper, and so Abe visits a former friend and communist playwright, Asher Friedman (Jason Alexander). Abe, still feeling like he needs a sense of purpose, writes a critique of his friend’s poor treatment in Broadway and having lost everything, and gets his article published in the New York Times. His accomplishment, something which he brings up to everyone, believing the written word can change the world.
Joel, meanwhile, agrees to divorce Midge despite their random hook-up in last year’s season finale. He embraces the life of being their children’s dad while setting up a potential nightclub in Chinatown, where he discovers some shady dealings going on below his club: an illegal Chinese Casino. He then befriends and later starts dating, one of the locals, a medical student named Mei. She helps him get his liquor license approved, and despite their hiccups about how he doesn’t want a woman’s help, he sort of absolutely needs both hers and Midge’s later on in the season. All for a cute arc seeing Joel somewhat have a life despite still being very much in love with Midge.
Which brings us to the point. Originally, this season is all hunky-dory and mostly happy. Sure, there’s a struggle and fun ways to see how the family get by, but for the most part, little is on the line, the family gets a plethora of connections and second chances, and many, have claimed that they found this season a little bit boring; or perhaps, just the usual servings of what we’ve already seen in the show. Many reviews say that this season was a non-risky season.
And to that, I call out your critique and say: bullshit. The early lightheartedness is sort of the point of the season. Because by the final episode, we see Midge open at the Apollo moments before a famous black comedian, Moms Mabley (Wanda Sykes) kills at her set. It’s only then, at this moment, do we really address the elephant that’s been staring us in the room. That despite being a Jewish Woman, in the end, Midge is blatantly white. She’s taken another black comedian’s spot at the Apollo, as well as what could’ve been another black artist’s spot-on Shy Baldwin’s tour. Freaking out about this realization, what does Reggie, Shy Baldwin’s manager and longtime friend to both Midge and Susie this season suggest?
Make the routine all about Shy because this is his hometown and they love the boy. Which works… except for the jabs Midge playfully pokes at Shy’s homosexuality, revealed to her in confidence, during a telling episode midseason discussing this very theme:
The artist is the product.
And despite everything being perfect, despite the jokes being rather soft lobs… Shy doesn’t want anything of it, knowing his career is on the line if it came out (this is the 60s). He fires Midge at the very last scene, over something his own manager suggested and will never admit to suggesting. And it’s heartbreaking because everything built-up has been this dream. The opportunity to be a big star: Christmas special, steady income, and live TV set… ruined, by one action.
And when you really look at it, the end of this season technically makes this the season Midge loses just about everything. No trust fund money, no apartment, no actual money, still blacklisted in NYC by Sophie Lennon, a family who is now scraping by, and worst of all: no future job prospects.
When you sort through the fallout it’s actually really bad. All because the Maisel family pursued their ideals and were met by nothing but broken promises and bitter hearts. Though, at least Abe and Rose have something going for them in their new careers/ventures.
Despite some rehashing on familiar territory, I believe that the series takes its next natural step. Moving forward while stumbling backward. Showcasing that sometimes failure comes with success, all while taking the unjust fall.
Because that’s showbusiness. And it gets dirty.
You can watch ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Season Three on Amazon Prime right now