When we started talking culturally about “Prestige TV,” it changed not just the language but the context of how TV shows were viewed. To be considered prestige meant “Importance,” probably serious in nature (although not always), and money being spent. It’s how smaller networks that wanted to get into the scripted game got noticed (think USA with Mr. Robot or WGN America with Underground). If something is Important then it deserves recognition from critics and awards bodies, which means it’s more likely to be noticed or sought out by casual viewers because of, indeed, The Importance of it all.
So is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon Prime’s crown jewel of original programming, Important? Is it Prestige? If that’s what it’s aiming for, it’s not necessarily hitting the mark. The show is smart and snappy. There’s a lot of money there, and thanks to its cast and period setting it looks and feels Important. But Maisel is not without its problems, as have been documented elsewhere, in its depiction of Jewish culture, of its fawning portrayal of wealth, of its marginalization of people of color. And some of those things have been directly addressed by its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, in the show’s the third season. Much of it is still a wandering fantasia of wealth and good fortune but … maybe that’s ok. If Maisel is unburdened by the weight of Prestige TV and the chase for Importance because it’s Amazon’s biggest original hit, then it can be accepted for what it is rather than what it is not. “Fantasy comedy” is essentially what Maisel is, in all of its messy, expensive, creatively indulgent glory.
So when it comes to the show’s particular brand of entertainment, your enjoyment of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is down to whether or not you want to buy into this escapist world and Sherman-Palladino’s very specific dialogue patterns and set aesthetics. People talk in this show, and I mean talk, and the series’ pace is a whirlwind of nightclubs and jokes and stage performances. The third season is even more indulgent than the first two in those terms; the introduction of Shy Baldwin and his Big Band sound remind one a little bit of watching HBO’s Treme, which would just wander into a musical interlude and stay there for as long as it liked. Maisel is visually dazzling, full of colorful patterns, opulent settings, and lavish fabrics. It’s a spectacle, but it’s not for everyone. Maybe it’s not Important, but it’s very fun. And that’s important in and of itself.
Having said that, the first five episodes of Season 3 available for critics to view are definitely a hodgepodge. With Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) on the road, the writers have gone the opposite direction of the Catskills storylines of Season 2 and flung the characters far and wide. Susie (Alex Borstein) is splitting her time between Midge and Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch), much to Midge’s distaste. Joel (Michael Zegen) is working on opening up a nightclub in Chinatown, which also opens the story up to an illegal Chinese gambling operation on the other side of his wall, as well as a new love interest who may have connections to organized crime. Meanwhile, Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose (Miriam Hinkle) are bunking with Moishe (Kevan Pollack) and Shirley (Caroline Aaron) in Queens after being forced to downsize from their massive Manhattan apartment.
Abe and Rose’s downsizing (and somewhat revolutionary leanings—for them—in terms of not wanting to be dependent on someone else’s money) is one of those moments that feels like Sherman-Palladino is speaking directly to those who have criticized the series’ infatuation with wealth. But there’s another side to it there as well, as Abe’s young communist friends get very comfortable ordering around his maid, Zelda (Matilda Szydagis ), within a day of being in his home. Yes, we can judge the Weissmans for feeling that they can’t live without Zelda’s cooking and cleaning and pampering, but isn’t that also part of the show’s overall dreaminess (for most watching who can’t afford such a lavish lifestyle) to think, well, it would be nice?
Those sequences are fine, as are Joel’s Chinatown scenes, but the show is of course the most alive when we’re with Midge—and never more so than when Midge is with Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby). Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain) has been a good addition, but five episodes in he hasn’t been given much to do (and again, of note: his huge entourage, all of whom are black, have not had any significant storylines of their own other than a few brief and wonderful scenes featuring Sterling K. Brown). Susie and Midge are still a delight together (as are Susie’s adventures when she’s away from Midge), but not as much as they were in Season 2. It’s really Kirby’s Bruce who steals the show, slinking and smirking his way through his scenes, as his chemistry with Midge starts to reach Fleabag/Priest levels. (I don’t know if Lenny Bruce was ever meant to be such a prominent character in the series, but of course now it can’t be helped.)
Midge’s love life, though—whether or not it includes Lenny Bruce—remains complicated. Her divorce with Joel is finalized, but the two continue to have an amicable co-parenting arrangement that is punctuated with bursts of confusion and anger whenever they get pulled to close into each other’s emotional orbits. They seem somewhat inevitable, and they both know it—which makes them want to fight against it all the more.
It’s curious in many ways that Amazon didn’t make the last three episodes of this third season available for critics; it always makes us wonder what’s being hidden. Is it a spoiler, or a bad plotline? So far, at least, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel continues to be a pleasant escapist parade of sartorial and financial fantasy, even if the individual stories aren’t as interesting or as emotionally involving as in the past. Midge’s charmed life is now taking her across the country to do standup, some of which lands and some of which does not, and Brosnahan continues to be exceptionally adept at balancing Midge’s girly charms with her more mature, profane frustrations. So is Maisel prestige? Is it Important? Does it matter? As glittery fun, whether or not it ultimately sticks with you, it’s greatly entertaining. And for those who have enjoyed the first two seasons, that should be reasons enough to buy another ticket to the show.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel premieres Friday, December 6th on Amazon Prime.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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