“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” certainly sounds better than the more descriptive title for Amazon’s latest period drama, inasmuch as “The Marginal Mrs. Maisel” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
“Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (working with her husband, Daniel Palladino) assembles an interesting concept and stellar cast, but this late-1950s dramedy – which uses a fictional point of entry into the real-life stand-up scene of the era – is too stagey and precious in the telling to merit consistent applause.
“Mrs. Maisel’s” flaws are in spite of its title character, not because of her. Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards”) is delightful as Midge, a housewife whose seemingly idyllic world is suddenly turned upside down when her husband (Michael Zegen), a wannabe comic, is exposed as an adulterer.
It’s what happens next, and much of what ensues after, which feels a trifle forced, as Midge in short order discovers her own knack for comedy, meeting an enthusiastic backer (Alex Borstein) who wants to manage her and legendary bad-boy comic Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), who also encourages her to pursue it.
The flurry of events, beginning with Midge’s crumbling marriage, comes as a rather enormous shock to her parents and in-laws, as she begins to lead what amounts to a double life. Yet while the idea of a woman trying to break through in the male-dominated comedy field during the Eisenhower years has promise, the seat-of-the-pants way she stumbles along somewhat undermines it.
Similarly, Sherman-Palladino’s trademark rat-a-tat banter feels extra-stilted funneled through this nice Jewish girl and her extended circle, until everyone sounds the same – as if they’re participating in a Catskills comedy skit. That doesn’t mean there aren’t funny lines and solid sequences, like one involving Shalhoub and Pollak in a later episode, only that the nature of the dialogue yields diminishing, bordering-on-monotonous returns.
It’s too bad, since as noted there’s a lot to like here, from Brosnahan to the period trappings and music. But frankly, Amazon had and canceled a more fully realized drama about women and the sexism they faced — both systemic and casual — with its fact-based series “Good Girls Revolt,” about female journalists in the 1960s.
“Mrs. Maisel” premieres at an odd moment for the streaming service, after separate sexual-harassment allegations triggered a management change and have threatened to derail Amazon’s signature series “Transparent,” amid a re-evaluation of its larger strategy. Nevertheless, the show received an early vote of confidence with a two-season order prior to its premiere.
While this newcomer might eventually reward that faith, having previewed four episodes, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” simply doesn’t feel like another genuine headliner, at a time when Amazon needs to deliver one.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” premieres Nov. 29 on Amazon.