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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Is Back, and More Problematic Than Ever

The show's hamfisted attempts at diversified storytelling hit a nadir in its season four opener.
  • Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein in a scene from the fourth season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)
    Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein in a scene from the fourth season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)

    Early in the fourth season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, cantankerous talent manager Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) encounters a magician at a beatnik bar, and before long he offers to transport her to another place entirely. “Anywhere but here” is Susie’s request, and – presto! – she finds herself in an enchanted forest for a few precious seconds before the hypnosis wears off. It’s a silly throwaway moment, but it’s also a pretty good microcosm for creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s entire oeuvre. Escapism has underpinned all three series she’s put on the small screen over the past two decades (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads, and Maisel), each of them serving up a similar brand of TV comfort food. The first two shows were set in idyllic out-of-the-way small towns; the third takes place in a hyperglossy version of midcentury New York that only ever existed in movie musicals. (Even the armed goons turn out to be lovable shlubs.) Most problems and conflicts faced by the characters in these worlds are pretty high up on Maslow’s hierarchy: bad dates, fraught family dynamics, and other travails easily washed away with coffee and donuts.

    Sherman-Palladino has always sought to separate her material from the kind of safe storytelling you’d see on Hallmark or 7th Heaven (one of Gilmore Girls’ WB siblings back in the day). Having come up as a network sitcom writer in the ‘90s, she’s well-versed in crafting blush-worthy dialogue that’s risque without being explicit. (Witness the opening scene of the Bunheads pilot, which features almost enough banter about off-screen showgirl boobs to convince us we’re actually seeing them.) Her characters are unfailingly brassy; it’s rare to find one with any kind of filter, and even the meekest among them manage to get in a good rant once in a while. Even if you didn’t know that her production company was called Dorothy Parker Drank Here, it would be pretty easy to see Sherman-Palladino’s career as an Algonquin Round Table of her own making – a fantasy realm where you can say anything so long as you say it fast enough.

    The fact that this kind of safe, heightened world has its limits – especially when it comes to exploring real-world issues – has never seemed to dissuade Sherman-Palladino; in fact, one could argue it’s a feature, not a bug. She’s always been protective of her main characters, perhaps to a fault, which means that any real exploration of their attractive cis-het white woman privilege has generally been off the table.

    But as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel progressed through its early seasons, the creator at least feigned interest in showcasing another perspective. The titular Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) met and began touring with crooner Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), and at least for a time, both Midge and the audience had a chance to see things through eyes that were non-white – and also, as it turned out, non-straight. Shy wasn’t actually the first gay Black character in Sherman-Palladino history; Gilmore Girls had Michel (Yanic Truesdale). But Michel was very much a product of that show’s too-perfect universe. There was barely a hint of recognition that he might have a harder time by virtue of his race and/or sexuality (even in small-town Connecticut). With Shy, Sherman-Palladino was at least pragmatic enough to acknowledge some of the liabilities he’d face, though she waited until late in Maisel’s third season to do so. In “Kind of Blue,” which she wrote and directed, Shy gets punched in the face by a guy he picks up at a bar in Miami, and since he isn’t safe seeking any kind of treatment outside the bounds of the Fountainebleu, Midge steps in to cover his wounds with make-up – and promises to keep his sexuality a secret.

    To some critics, this story felt like it was less about exploring Shy’s plight and more about scoring Woke Points for Midge, but even so it could have been a step in the right direction. Instead, the show doubled down on centering the experience of its main character. In the season finale (“A Jewish Girl Walks Into The Apollo”) Midge hems and haws about being a white lady performing for a Black crowd; and then, after being advised by Shy’s manager Reggie (Sterling K. Brown) to focus her stand-up act on Shy, she goes on stage and… makes a bunch of barely-veiled gay jokes, somehow assuming that the secret she’s been sworn to keep is already known to the thousands of people in front of her. On another show, something this cringey and tone-deaf might have at least served as a springboard for self-reflection and evolution, and one might have hoped it was coming after the third season ended on a shot of Midge watching Shy’s plane leave the tarmac without her.

    Based on the first two episodes of Maisel’s fourth season, that evolution is at best still a ways off. Midge doesn’t want to change her outlook; she only wants “revenge,” which is the whole theme of her Gaslight Cafe set in the season opener. Does the show have any sense of how ridiculous it is that even someone as self-centered Midge could fail to understand how much her public outing of Shy threatened not just his career but, you know, his actual life? The answer, it seems, is no: Not even Susie, Midge’s blunt-force voice of reason, expresses any misgivings about her client’s behavior. Meanwhile – to avoid revealing anything too specific – Shy’s storyline gets a button that is realistic, cruel, and completely un-commented on. (No, they don’t kill him off, but it sure has the feel of an unceremonious dismissal.)

    So: Truly, what is going on here? Even calling this a badly flubbed attempt at diversified storytelling feels charitable at this point. It seems more likely that Shy Baldwin only ever had the same utility to Maisel that he would have had to American musical audiences at the time: to show up and sing, then fade back into the shadows before his humanity made anyone uncomfortable. Lots of screen time was devoted to his gentle crooning; very, very little was devoted to allowing him to express his thoughts and feelings. Perhaps Amy Sherman-Palladino has confused the concept of making a show set in 1960 with making a show in 1960, when this kind of casual racism and homophobia would fly without remark.

    Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the problematic aspects of both this show and the rest of Sherman-Palladino’s filmography. Do the over-the-top characterizations of the racketeering Lin family, Joel’s (Michael Zegen) nightclub landlords, remind you of the comic callousness of Gilmore Girls’ Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda)? Does Midge’s obsession with sending her kids to private school lest they end up working-class smack of the same kind of elitism that was constantly on display in Rory Gilmore’s (Alexis Bledel) academic pursuits? Is it that much of a leap to imagine that a writer who delights in giving life to articulate egomaniacs who get away with all manner of bad behavior just might… not be very kind?

    Rest assured that there’s more cringe to come in season four. Joel attempts to speak broken Chinese to the Lins. Susie visits Sophie Cooper (Jane Lynch) at an old-fashioned sanitarium where everyone is hilariously bonkers! Susie’s insurance fraud co-conspirator sister Tessie (Emily Bergl) gets a job that entails blowing her boss in the bathroom. When Abe (Tony Shalhoub) arrives at the Village Voice, there’s a joke about someone forgetting the name of the only Black guy on the editorial staff. But thank goodness, after spending one uncomfortable night sleeping next to Susie in the Gaslight Cafe, Midge gets her beloved Upper West Side apartment back, because she deserves nothing less. A new venue is also revealed – the details of which Amazon has asked us not to spoil – that will presumably supply another batch of career hijinks for Midge, albeit without challenging any of her preconceptions.

    When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel launched in early 2017, it was exciting to see what Amy Sherman-Palladino would do with the big budgets and creative freedom afforded by Amazon Studios. But after a few years of sumptuous tracking shots and armies of perfectly costumed extras, it would be nice if she saw fit to turn the camera on some of the people who were really struggling in 1960, and are still struggling in 2022, instead of using them as disposable punchlines and set dressing. Midge Maisel may never wake up and smell the privilege, but her creator really should.

    The first two episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's eight-episode fourth season are now streaming on Amazon Prime. New episodes drop Fridays through March 11.

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    Nick Rheinwald-Jones is Co-Artistic Director of Spy Brunch LLC, a Los Angeles immersive theatre company. He has written about film and TV for Vulture, The AV Club, Decider, and Previously.TV.

    TOPICS: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Prime Video, Alex Borstein, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Jane Lynch, Leroy McClain, Michael Zegen, Rachel Brosnahan, Sterling K. Brown, African Americans and TV, LGBTQ