My sister turned me onto The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel: she was describing how much she loved comedy, how much more when it was the type of Jewish humour set in New York’s East Village in the 50s; when the protagonist was a woman who wore Chanel, Jacques Fath and Balenciaga; and when the show has bursts of glorious show-tunes that pop throughout the series and create little bubbles of feeling, usually upbeat. In fact the whole show is as stylised as a musical but with the glossy shine and setting of a Rock Hudson – Doris Day romantic comedy of the period. It’s clearly inspired by Joan Rivers’ career and there’s a glorious Totie Fields-type antagonist, Sophie Lennon, wonderfully played by Jane Lynch in both guises, the fake onstage hick shtick and the sophisticated doyenne of a butlered West Side townhouse under the onstage fat-suit.
Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam ‘Midge’ Meisel is smart, funny, beautiful. She knows her lipsticks well enough to charm most women –there’s a tinge of Legally Brunette about her character — whilst being interested and open enough to also get to know and like women who despise make-up and everything it stands for, like her butch manager Susie. Part of what’s lovely about this show is women’s relationships with each other. And interestingly, though one of the main storylines is Mr. Meisel (Michael Zegen) leaving and what happens next, the relationships that I treasure most in the series are those Mrs. Meisel has with her mother (a tart, delicate and witty performance from Marin Hinkle) and with her manager Susie Mayerson (Alex Borstein, looking like a wounded bulldog ready and willing to bite at any moment).
What makes Mrs. Meisel so marvelous is that offstage she’s kind, thoughtful, smart, a can-do problem solver whose quite efficiency makes everyone’s life better. Onstage, however, her Id takes over: she ends up in jail twice, sharing the paddy-wagon with Lenny Bruce, bares her tits and biting the hand that feeds her. Like Joan Rivers, she can’t help herself. And like Joan Rivers, she struggles to find a spot and be heard in a patriarchal phallocentric milieu where as Sophie Lennon tells her, to be a comedian you’ve gotta have a dick or a schtick. The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel eschews both and creates a space for a humorous point of view of a female experience in a changing world that is both critical and delightful. The show feels like sinking into a cloud whilst eating ice-cream. But after the ice-cream’s been eaten and the clouds have dispersed, one finds oneself also remembering a complex account of a time, a place and a struggle that feels as truthful as it is delightful.