It’s not easy for a show that nabs 6 major Primetime Emmy Awards in its first season to successfully stave off a sophomore slump. And yet, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has taken a page out of Atlanta’s book and returned brighter, better, and fully devoted to doing its own thing. Also like Atlanta, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season is more episodic than its first, taking a small detour in Midge’s stand-up career to send its cast to new locales, with mixed results. But at its core it is still very much the story of an incredibly intelligent, perky, and foul-mouthed young mother who is drawn to comedy, and excels in it at a time when women were not particularly welcomed there, nor was it considered an acceptable career choice (for pretty much anyone).
That tension between Midge Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) home life and her budding career is brought to a head at the end of the first season, when her estranged husband Joel (Michael Zegen) covertly catches her stand-up act and is so confused by his feelings he denounces her and then slugs a heckler. But Season 2 explores this in new ways, most potently when Midge and her parents, Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose (Marin Hinkle), abscond to the Catskills for the summer. As Midge’s long-suffering manager Susie (Alex Borstein) exclaims, you can’t just take an entire summer off. Although frankly, the idyllic Catskills adult-camp experience feels like exactly what one would do if they could afford it for an entire summer (and where Midge’s kids are, even more than Season 1, an unseen afterthought). But eventually Midge is drawn back to stand-up, because it flows so naturally from her.
The first place Marvelous Mrs. Maisel travels to, though, is Paris, in a hilarious sequence that finds Midge and Abe scrambling to understand why Rose has suddenly taken off. But it’s an odd choice to start the season, as it meanders through the Weissmans’ experiences in the city for a few episodes before settling back in New York just in time to take off again to the Catskills. It’s certainly a departure from the first season, and yet, these characters are so engaging and charming that following them to all of these new places (even if they do seem like diversions) is still really lovely.
All of this travel, filled with outstanding outfits and polished period details, comes with the particular carefree air of not having to worry about money. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel exists in a place of extreme privilege, one that it isn’t self-aware of itself in the slightest. That tone, for some, makes it an escapist fantasy, but for others it is a show full of grating pomposity. Though I tend to be one of the former, I tend towards the latter as the series occasionally veers too far into theatricality, feeling overly staged and managed rather than natural and sincere. And yet, the show can course-correct just as quickly. In a particularly revealing scene, Midge takes the stage in Paris to an audience who doesn’t understand her, until she’s helped by a gifted translator. Midge’s quick-step patter is matched by the translator, and it all builds to a cacophonous crescendo as the two are shouting together and ultimately close to thunderous applause. But just as quickly, Midge starts thinking about how much she misses Joel and her former life, and becomes melancholic, bringing the room to tears, and the show gains emotional ground extraordinarily quickly from those loud comedic heights.
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s writing is even sharper this year, with the cast (especially Brosnahan) able to master her fast-paced, chatter-filled dialogue with often hilarious aplomb. It’s not just about quickly rattling off jokes and throwaway lines, but giving it all true depth and feeling. Yet there are also wonderful, quieter moments and detours that the story takes. Most of these moments belong to Susie, like when she unexpectedly bonds with Ethan over TV and sandwiches, or infiltrates an exclusive Catskills resort just by holding a plunger and playing off the running gag that everyone will mistake her for a boy who works there (they do). Susie also leads a bizarre, short subplot where she is abducted and then becomes friends with her abductors, which allows Borstein to be at her absolute best and most charming in the role, as she continues to elevate Susie from being comic relief to perhaps the series’ most compelling character.
But the titular Midge is still the heart and soul of the Maisel, with the luminous Brosnahan again making her perfectly imperfect and loveably wry. The stand-up, though rarer, is excellent, but again the show (and its star) are often best when focused on the personal rather than the professional, especially when Midge’s experiences are at their quirkiest. (As Midge, Brosnahan has the ability to make even the most uncool things seems exceptionally cool. Basically, if Midge likes it or is doing it, you’ll like it and want to do it, too). She’s also growing and changing, as is everyone in the series, perhaps most especially Joel who — for the first time — starts acting like an adult.
Sherman-Palladino’s directing is again outstanding (of note, her husband Daniel Palladino very occasionally takes the writing and directing lead), and keeps us swirling along in Midge’s kaleidoscopic world of Parisian hats and summer fireworks and smokey clubs. But it’s never dizzying — The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is full of fast-moving people, but it sets its own languid pace when it comes to Midge’s personal life and her career. And that makes sense, not only for the show’s longevity, but so that when Midge does get a win or moves forward in a meaningful way, it is meaningful, and not lost in swirling plots.
More than anything, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel continues to be a show that always brings happiness and secures a good mood while watching it. It’s not that it’s always positive (it shouldn’t be), and its potty language means that it’s not a family show. But it is a truly delightful, exceptionally spirited romp that explores Midge’s world of appearing classically conventional but actually being extraordinary — often by sheer force of will. She’s not for everyone, but to like Midge is to love her. The same is true of the show.
All 10 episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2 will be available on Amazon Prime starting Wednesday, December 5th.