If you’re Jewish and you write about TV, there’s a type of show you’ve likely gotten to expect. It’s the show that’s obviously Jewy to you, but not as obvious to a non-Jewish audience. This is the category shows like Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fall into — Jews have good reason to love their consistent references to Jewish life, but broader TV criticism doesn’t talk it up as their defining trait. “Jewish, Just For Us” is the loving term I’ve come up with for them.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon pilot, is not that show. It’s “Jewish For Everyone.” It’s all Jewish, all the time.
The Gilmore Girls creator’s new series explores charming housewife Midge Maisel’s journey into stand-up comedy in 1950s New York, and it brims with joyous Semitism from the very first minute — literally. The show gets just 50 seconds in before its first jokey reference to the Holocaust, when Midge — soaking in the spotlight at her own wedding reception — mimics her dad’s reaction to wedding prices: “Do the caterers have any idea what the Jews just went through a few years ago?” Minutes later, she causes a panic by joking there’s shrimp in the egg rolls. The words “rabbi,” “brisket,” and “latkes” are repeated so many times in the episode it’s impossible to keep count. Marriage advice is framed in terms of finding the person who would hide you in their attic. And while it’s bad enough Midge’s schmuck husband leaves her midway through the episode, it’s even worse that he does it on Yom Kippur. A shonda if there ever was one.
Disappointingly, the show does suffer from the lack of ethnic diversity that’s sadly become signature in Palladino’s work. And for such a vibrantly Jewy show, it’s a little ironic to see so few members of the tribe in the main cast. Thankfully, Gilmore Girls alum Alex Borstein seems primed to correct that and take on a more central role in future episodes. But those reservations aside, the show develops into a true celebration of Jewish-American culture and a time when Jewish women specifically occupied a vibrant, brassy space in pop-culture.
Comedy nerds will likely be excited at the prospect of examining this iconic time in when Borscht Belt comedians started to define the art form, and those nerds won’t be disappointed. Lenny Bruce plays a key role in Midge’s transformation, Mort Sahl and Don Rickles get shout outs, and Midge herself is basically Joan Rivers reenacted.
This first episode was released as part of Amazon’s Pilot Season, which lets viewers vote to tell Amazon which of its new shows it should produce more episodes of. With the general buzz and glowing reviews the show is getting, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seems likely to get picked up to series, which means we’ll probably see even more references to Jewish comedy greats in future episodes.
Who might we see next? Seeing a young Woody Allen seems likely; Rodney Dangerfield would be better. My vote goes for Sid Caesar or Carl Reiner. But with this era in Jewish history, let’s face it: it’s hard to go wrong.
Image by Sarah Shatz/Amazon Video