The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel looks both backward and forward: It offers a nostalgically frothy, sherbet-pastel 1950s MGM musical view of the world, while offering a protagonist who’s relatively progressive for the time period. Last season, Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s entire existence lurched when she found out her husband was leaving her for his secretary; she uncharacteristically fell into a new life as an aspiring stand-up comic, hanging out in smoky, dumpy nightclubs with the likes of Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby). It was an energetic, irrepressible season right out of the gate, resulting in a slew of Emmy awards and Golden Globes for the series, creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and the beyond-charming Rachel Brosnahan as Midge.
Fortunately for followers of the delightful Mrs. Maisel, the Amazon series shows no signs at all of a sophomore slump as its second season drops this week. Gilmore Girls vet Sherman-Palladino knows her way around TV seasons, assisted by husband Daniel, and she keeps Maisel fresh by having her characters leave the Upper West Side and thrusting them into different settings (Paris, the Catskills) to see what turns up. Wherever she lands, Midge will never turn down the opportunity to hog a microphone—not even a language barrier in Paris can stop her—which would be tiresome if we didn’t see her stand-up exclamations for what they are: the chance for a longtime conformist to finally express all the thoughts she’s kept to herself for so many years. Without a home to run, Miriam now runs roughshod over her fellow switchboard operators and girls on the floor while working at department store B. Altman, while waiting for her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) to book her big break.
Last season, we saw Miriam embark on a brand new journey; this season, her main challenge is to align these seemingly disparate halves of her life. Is she changing, or has her standup career merely exposed what was there all along? The Midge we first meet would never yell “fuck” in the middle of a Simon Says game, like this one does; while her very first scene was an charmingly outrageous wedding speech (her own), this season she offers an off-color nuptial toast that scandalizes an entire congregation.
While Miriam discovers herself, others are on a similar journey of self-exploration: Her almost-ex, Joel (Michael Zegen), is headed in the opposite direction, realizing that the family business may be where he belongs after all. It helps that Joel’s introductory walk through his father’s factory (a hilariously over-the-top Kevin Pollak) is portrayed in a breathless tracking camera shot, as he discovers the true mania behind his mother’s accounting practices (treasure maps indicating stashes of cash) and his father’s business deals (when the loan sharks crash through the windows at night, that’s when they know it’s time to pay). Midge’s domestic upheaval inspires a similar rebellion in her mother, Rose (Marin Hinkle), who escapes to Paris, causing her husband and daughter to go after her. Abe (Tony Shalhoub, never better) and Rose’s scenes in Paris are straight-up lovely, a Seine-side dance scene evoking similar sights from An American In Paris, and proving, like their daughter, that it’s never too late to shake up your life a bit.
Paris offers the valuable view of these familiar characters in an unfamiliar setting, with the French-speaking Rose glamorous and worldly, an eventually adapting Abe debonair and romantic, and Midge somehow crashing a cabaret performance. But a formerly familiar setting reveals so much more: In episode four, the Maisels take off for the Catskills, and due to her domestic changes, Midge loses her long-standing status at the Steiner Mountain Resort. She is no longer able to continue her bikini-contest championship winning streak, and the cursing in the Simon Says game is just one of her many transgressions. (Her much-discussed children are dropped off with a sitter upon arrival at the resort, and then not seen again for two whole episodes, not even to watch the fireworks.) The Catskills scenes are postcard picturesque, down to the shades of the hulu hoops and the sawdust on the shuffleboard table; if you’ve ever longed for an actual period-appropriate Dirty Dancing stretched out into a series, your day has finally arrived. Midge collides not with a handsome dance instructor but Zachary Levi as Dr. Benjamin, a bored physician who is definitely intrigued by her peculiarities. Sherman-Palladino, crafter of one of the most chemistry-laden will-they/won’t-they’s in TV history, knows how to cast couples, and the charismatic Levi does not disappoint.
Midge’s journey is so lovely to witness, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel doesn’t have to offer us any more depth than a Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy (which it often resembles). But offer it does: Midge’s most effective standup involves her making fun of her upbringing, her family, her marriage (signaling an apparent end to her and Joel), but most importantly, her pain. As she rightly points out at a show where she’s sidelined by a noxious comics boys’ club, if comedy is born from tragedy, who on earth would understand that better than a woman? Midge is our hero because she blazes a trail in a world where her path is unfamiliar enough to be nearly impossible. As she continues to imbue that story with all the gravity it deserves in season two, Amy Sherman-Palladino is our hero because she recognizes what an epic journey that is.