Like so many of its fellow established series that have been off the air for the last two pandemic years, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 4 picks up exactly where its last season left off, which means viewers are expected to recall what in fact transpired at the end of Season 3. So much has happened in our world in that time that it’s been jarring to see these shows return without having really moved forward at all, sometimes literally extending from a scene in that now long-ago finale. It’s as if we are meant to forget the gap between episodes and pretend nothing happened; it’s almost ghostly the way it tries to erase that experience and the passage of time.
But if viewers feel adrift, that’s something we share with Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), who was unceremoniously dumped from a big-deal European tour to end Season 3 because she nearly outed the headliner at the Apollo. Her set killed, as she notes while having a breakdown on the way from the airport, but she was once again speaking out about things that weren’t sanctioned for her to say. And she—with trademark profanity—exclaims just that in a comedy set that bookends the first episode, declaring she will not be silenced any longer. And, she will take the reins in controlling her life and her career.
Those who have watched Mrs. Maisel over the years will know that things are never that simple, and indeed once again they are not. Midge had taken a loan from her father-in-law Moishe (Kevin Pollak) in order to buy back her old lavish apartment, based on the fact that she was about to make some very good money. The premiere is largely concerned with how that money thusly gets moved around, after Midge’s manager Susie (Alex Borstein) gambled it away and then tries to borrow it short-term from Midge’s ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen), all while she waits for the check from the insurance fraud she and her sister Tess (Emily Bergl) committed in Season 3.
This kind of madcap plotting is never the show at its best, and things come to a grating crescendo when the whole Maisel and Weissman brood go to Coney Island where Midge has to admit to her parents (Tony Shalhoub’s Abe and Marin Hinkle’s Rose) as well as her in-laws what happened. The second episode (of a mere two available for review) calms down slightly, but tries to sell us on Midge’s hardship living in a massive apartment that she can’t really pay for, and having a breakdown when the milkman won’t deliver to her because she lacks her own established credit away from her husband.
There are elements of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that speak to important truths of the era (that Midge’s credit is based on her husband, that she’s punished for making blue comments while male comics are praised for it, etc), but none of it quite lands because Midge is so incredibly rich and privileged. When that’s lampooned, like in the character of Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch), it works. But if we’re supposed to feel like Midge—with her live-in housekeeper, two children she ignores, and endless rooms of expensive decor—is just a working girl doing her best to make it in this crazy city, well… that’s a harder sell.
The first two episodes back also lean into some of the series’ worst and most theatrically stagey impulses, with trademark manic His Girl Friday dialogue that hits one homer for every hundred swings it takes. Mrs. Maisel is supposed to be heightened, a candy-colored whirlwind of watching a young woman leave behind everything that’s expected of her to pursue her talent and her dream. And the show is always great when Midge is actually doing that: performing sets, pushing boundaries, disrupting the status quo, and questioning old ideals. It’s also great that she does that while sporting an infinite array of new outfits, always perfectly coiffed for any occasion and never sacrificing fashion or her beauty routine for any reason. That’s Midge! She’s selfish and entitled, but it usually works out for her while helping her push past the patriarchy of mid-century mores.
But Midge is also… selfish and entitled. She’s not exactly a working-class hero. And two narratively messy episodes that see the show’s many disparate characters without any real plots of their own (Joel’s club is too successful, Abe is enjoying his job quite a bit, Rose’s matchmaking business is mentioned but we see nothing of it, Susie has a one-track Midge Mind) don’t really provide any sense of where things are headed. We know that Midge is trying to make it on her own terms, because she’s been doing that since Season 1. So what else?
Much of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s appeal over the years has been as an unmitigated fantasia of 1950s and ‘60s aesthetics and being in an untouchable income bracket (dare to dream!) while chasing a calling. But without the strong foundational forces of previous seasons (the divorce, the Catskills, Shy Baldwin), the show’s shallow construction becomes uncomfortably visible. Season 4, so far, is a sandbox of great actors and great hats, but there has to be substance to match the style. The actors, Brosnahan chief among them, continue to give their by-god all to make the show sparkle, but things in our own not-so-candy-colored world have changed. We as viewers are burned out, restless, justifiably cynical. We need more than great outfits and the occasional one-liner hit to woo us for our time. Midge herself may be going a mile a minute to make it, but Mrs. Maisel needs to work a little harder to win us back and be marvelous once again.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 4 premieres Friday, February 18th on Prime Video.
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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