Mrs. Maisel’s chequered Jewish legacy up for debate
JTA – After five seasons, 20 Emmy awards, and plenty of Jewish jokes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel airs its final episode on 2 June.
The lauded Amazon Prime show from Amy Sherman-Palladino has enveloped viewers in a shimmering, candy-coloured version of New York during the late 1950s and early 1960s – a world in which “humour” has meant Jewish humour and “culture” has meant Jewish culture.
But as it comes to an end, the show’s Jewish legacy is still up for debate. Did its representation of Jews on mainstream TV make it a pioneer of the 2010s? Or did it do more harm than good in the battle for better representation, by reinforcing decades-old comedic tropes about Jews?
The comedy-drama followed the vivacious Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) on a journey from prim Upper West Side housewife – left in the lurch after her husband has an affair with his secretary – to ambitious, foul-mouthed comic fighting her way through the male-dominated stand-up comedy industry. Her New York Jewishness coloured her jokes, her accent, her mannerisms, and much of her daily life.
That’s because the whole landscape of the show was Jewish, from the well-to-do, acculturated intelligentsia (such as Midge’s parents) to the self-made garment factory owners (such as her in-laws). Even the radical Jewish comic, Lenny Bruce, a countercultural icon of the mid-century, appeared as a recurring character who propels Midge’s success.
Henry Bial, a professor specialising in performance theory and Jewish popular culture at the University of Kansas, said the emergence of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in 2017 exemplified a shift to more overt portrayals of Jews on TV – especially on streaming services. Although Jewish characters featured in TV shows throughout the 20th century, such as The Goldbergs in the 1950s, Rhoda in the 1970s, and Seinfeld in the 1990s, their Jewishness was often more coded than explicit. Network television, seeking to attract the majority of Americans coveted by advertisers, feared alienating audiences who couldn’t “relate” to ethnic and racial minorities.
“If there are only three things you can put on television at eight o’clock on Tuesday night, then there’s a lot more incentive for networks and advertisers to stay close to the herd because you’re competing for the same eyeballs,” said Bial. “But when people can watch whatever they want whenever they want, then it opens up for a much wider range of stories.”
Other shows such as Transparent, Broad City, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which debuted in 2014 and 2015, are often cited alongside Mrs. Maisel as part of a new wave of Jewish representation.
Riv-Ellen Prell, a professor emerita of American studies at the University of Minnesota, argued that Midge subverts the stereotype of the Jewish American princess.
“She looks for all the world like the fantasy of a Jewish American princess,” said Prell. “And yet she’s more ambitious than imaginable, she’s a brilliant comic who draws on her own life. You have Amy Sherman-Palladino inventing the anti-Jewish princess.”
Bial said that Midge’s relationship with her Jewishness defies another stereotype – that identity isn’t a source of neurosis or self-loathing, as it often appears to be in the male archetypes of Woody Allen and Larry David, or in Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Through the spirited banter, the pointed exclamations of “oy!” the titillation over a rabbi coming for Yom Kippur breakfast – Midge’s Jewishness is a source of comforting ritual, joy, and celebration.
“She has anxieties and issues, but none of them are because she’s Jewish,” said Bial.
Some critics argue the show’s depiction of Jewish culture relies on shallow tropes. In a 2019 review, TV critic Paul Brownfield said The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel repurposed stereotypes to appear “retro chic”. He pointed to a consistent contrast between the Weissmans (the assimilated, cultured Jews of the Upper West Side) and the Maisels (the boorish, money-focused Jews of the Garment District), arguing that these superficial types replace an exploration of what the period was actually like for American Jews.
“However ‘Jewish’ Sherman-Palladino wants the show to be, Maisel fails to grapple with the realities of the moment in Jewish American history it portrays,” Brownfield wrote. “Which is ultimately what leaves me queasy about its tone – the shtick, the stereotypes, the comforting self-parody.”
Meanwhile, Andy Samberg took a jab while co-hosting the 2019 Golden Globes with Sandra Oh. “It’s the show that makes audiences sit up and say, ‘Wait, is this antisemitic?’” he joked.
Others have criticised the show’s casting: Its titular heroine, her parents Abe and Rose Weissman (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) are all played by non-Jews. A debate over the casting of non-Jewish actors in Jewish roles has heated up in recent years, taking aim not only at Brosnahan as Midge Maisel, but also at Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On The Basis of Sex; Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in Golda; and Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass as the Pfefferman siblings in Transparent. Comedian Sarah Silverman popularised the term “Jewface” to critique the trend.
Midge’s rise as a comedian is interlocked with her ally and one-time fling, the fictionalised Lenny Bruce. His character has a softened glow in the show, but in reality, Bruce was branded a “sick comic” for his scathing satire that railed against conservatism, racism, and moral hypocrisy. Between 1961 and 1964, he was charged with violating obscenity laws in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and he was deported from England.
Driven to pennilessness by relentless prosecution, police harassment, and blacklisting from most clubs across the country, he died of a morphine overdose in 1966 at 40 years old. The real Lenny Bruce’s tragedy lends a shadow to the fictional Midge Maisel’s triumphs.
The United States that he struggled with until his death also looks comparatively rosy through the lens of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, whose protagonist battles misogyny but takes little interest in other societal evils – including still-rampant antisemitism.
“Mrs. Maisel takes place in a supersaturated fantasy 1958 New York, one where antisemitism, racism, homophobia, and even sexism are barely a whisper,” Rokhl Kafrissen wrote in 2018.
Reflecting on the criticism that had piled up by 2020, Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Daniel Palladino, also an executive producer and a lead writer for the show, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that trying to appease every Jewish viewer was a futile exercise.
“We knew that if we show a Jewish family at temple – if we show them and talk about Yom Kippur and all those kinds of things – there are going to be people who are going to nit-pick at specifics that maybe we didn’t get exactly right,” said Palladino, who isn’t Jewish. “But a lot of the feedback that we’ve got has been, ‘Thank you. Thank you for leaning into it and showing Jews being Jewish, as opposed to just name checking them as Jewish.’”
However The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is assessed in the future, it will remain significant for thrusting a new kind of Jewish heroine into the mainstream consciousness, said Bial.
“Because of its popularity, its longevity, and frankly its quality, it’s going to be the example,” Bial said. “In the history of Jews and TV, this is going to be the chapter for the late 2010s and early 2020s – you have to mention Mrs. Maisel. It’s very clearly a landmark in Jewish representation, particularly for Jewish women.”