There is a conundrum at the heart of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Amazon Prime Video’s comedy about Jewish former-housewife embarking on a new career in 1950s New York, which is now back for its fourth series (these American shows do like to drag on). The main character is Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) and she’s a stand-up comic. Yet she is the least funny person here.
Her agent, the cantankerous Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), is funny. Her father, Abe (Tony Shalhoub) is hilarious. But Midge? If she was ever funny, she certainly isn’t now. Witness her opening routine, a response to the fact that she was fired from an international tour at the end of season three and left stranded at the airport: “They say you should be a bigger man and just let it go. Well, I’m a woman, so f--- that. I want my f---ing pound of flesh. I want my revenge.”
By the end of episode two, having elbowed her way back onto the stage in frustration at seeing so many mediocre men in the spotlight, she’s attempting jokes but this is as good as they get: “Women. You can’t live with ’em… Well, that pretty much sums it up. You can’t live with ’em.” And: “She saw a psychic who told her in a past life she was Mary Queen of Scots. I said, ‘I hope you had a good life, honey, because in this one you’re Mary Clean my Socks.”
Worst of all, in an early scene she strips down to her underwear and invokes Basil Fawlty by giving a taxi a damn good thrashing with a tree branch. As a rule of thumb, it’s best not to copy one of the world’s most perfect comedies when trying to make a comedy show of your own.
But if you can tolerate Brosnahan’s mile-a-minute delivery, which doesn’t let up even when she’s arrested for soliciting, there are some great ensemble scenes. Midge is nonplussed to call her parents and find that they’re throwing a birthday party for her son, when it’s nowhere near his birthday. “Papa, you don’t just change a little boy’s birthday!” says Midge. “We changed your brother’s birthday twice, he never found out,” shrugs Abe.
A sequence in which the family take a trip to Coney Island, where they learn – mid-way through a ride on a Ferris wheel – that Midge had been fired from her tour, is exquisitely written. Midge has moved back into her old apartment and invited her parents to live with her, which is a situation ripe for laughs. Just don’t expect them to come from Midge herself.
Season four of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel begins on Amazon Prime Video on February 18