The Exhausting Mrs. Maisel
It’s an old writer’s trick that never actually works.
When it comes to technology I’m not very prescient. So far, during my lifetime, I have sworn I would never own a smartphone, create a Facebook or Twitter account, or need a hard drive larger than 10 megabytes1. I also once swore I’d never have an Amazon Prime account, and yet here I am writing about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel like a chump, just handing out free publicity to a company that probably plans to grind up my bones when I die in order to make bread to feed the elites. I should have read the TOS on Prime a little more closely2.
The story of a well-off 1960s housewife, Miriam Maisel, who discovers a talent for standup comedy after suffering a bit of a nervous breakdown in the wake of her husband’s infidelity, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel got a lot of attention when it debuted in 20173. That moment in time was the high-water mark in the Streaming Wars in a lot of ways—other 2017 debuts include GLOW, The Handmaid’s Tale, and who could forget Brockmire4? It sure seemed like streaming channels were going to just keep serving up endless quality for us to binge, and Maisel was one reason to be optimistic.
The show has not aged well in a weird, difficult to define way. One reason for this is inherent to the character of Midge Maisel: She’s a terrible person5. She selfishly puts her own needs ahead of everyone else, largely ignores her own children6, and lies pretty constantly. This can be hard to track because Rachel Brosnahan is charisma personified, and she makes Midge into a gorgeous swirl of high fashion and razor-sharp wit, making it difficult to notice how terrible she is. But let’s not forget that in the Season Three finale Midge mocked a closeted man’s sexuality just to get a hostile crowd on her side, and only seemed to understand what she’d done when she was fired as a result7.
The other reason is the approach to dialog, which started off rapid-fire and has become positively rocket-fueled by Season Four. Put simply, it’s exhausting.
You're Wonderful, in a Loathsome Sort of Way
When done well, rapid-fire dialog is energizing and fun. Plenty of comedies have sported dialog that comes at you so fast you have to watch twice just to catch half of it. And in earlier seasons Mrs. Maisel seemed to be on that track, a bunch of super-smart characters shouting over each other in funny ways8. But in the fourth season some vital calibration has gone screwy—because here’s the thing: Rapid-fire dialog is also often used as a substitute for actual humor. It’s the comedic example of Ringo lamenting “Aw, rock on, anybody!” during a recording session.
Speed-talking and overlapping dialog has what could be called a “funny-ish” vibe to it. It seems funny. When a group of talented and skilled comedians are racing through pages of dialog it signals your brain that this should be funny. And as a writer you can get by on that energy for a while. Part of the appeal of any fiction is the desire to hang out with the characters, and the cast of Mrs. Maisel sure make it seem like they are funny and smart. They’re so good at seeming funny and smart it can actually take you a few episodes to realize they aren’t, not really. They just talk a lot, and they do it fast. Here’s a sample from the first episode of Season Four:
Susie: Have you lost your mind?
Midge: Yes! My mind, my job, my career.
Susie: You haven't lost your career.
Midge: I was on tour with the biggest star in the world, and then suddenly ... he wouldn't even talk to me. I thought we were friends.
Susie: In show business? I fucked up.
Midge: It's not your fault.
Susie: I should've been there. If I'd have been there, you wouldn't have talked to Reggie.
Midge: I would've talked to you.
Susie: And I would've told you to just calm the fuck down.
Midge: And I would've calmed the fuck down.
Susie: And you wouldn't have done that set and ended your career.
Midge: My career's ended?
Susie: I'm repeating what you said.
Midge: But I said it so you'd say it wasn't true.
Susie: Here, you want to hit the car again?
Midge: You don't think I can come back from this?
Susie: I just meant, if I'd have been there, you wouldn't have done that awful set.
Midge: The set was great. The audience laughed at every joke.
Susie: I just meant, if I'd have been there, you would've done something else.
Midge: I would've bombed.
Susie: Yeah, you would've bombed, and we would be on a plane to Prague right now.
Midge: If I had bombed, they still could've kicked me off the tour.
Susie: No, you would've been humiliated, but then you would've gotten on that plane, and then you would've bombed in Prague.
Midge: What? Why?
Susie: Those people don't laugh.
Midge: I could've made Prague people laugh.
Susie: You've never been to Prague. What the fuck would you talk about?
Midge: I'd find something. "Hello, Prague. Remember Jews?"
Now, that last line is mildly funny, and not every single line in a comedy has to be a joke. But this scene, representative of the entire Season Four energy, is delivered at a sweaty, breathless pace that disguises the fact that none of it is particularly funny or interesting9. You keep thinking you’re being entertained, but you’re really just struggling to keep up.
When in Doubt, Be Louder
It’s an old trick, substituting energy for whatever it is you’re looking for. I’ve personally written dozens of fast-paced, exhausting pages in a novel only to realize I was grinding the gears and getting speed and volume at the expense of good writing. It’s something that often happens unintentionally when you’re chasing word count or some other artificial metric—you just start pouring on the words without noticing that the energy is all wrong10. But it can also be used purposefully when you know you’ve got nothin’ in the tank.
There are still funny moments on the show, sharp lines and fantastic performances. But increasingly it’s more about speed and volume than the writing itself. Which is a shame, because the show could be one of the best, subtlest villain origin stories ever told if they let Midge lean into her selfish, mean-spirited side11.
Of course, maybe this is all just a byproduct of my advanced age. Y’all youngin’s just talk so darn fast.
Next week: Russian Doll: The Desperation’s Gone
I mean, I grew up back in the days when everything on the internet including the porn was all text. You could fit the whole thing on a floppy disc.
Or, you know, at all.
In part because the way they costume Rachel Brosnahan in the title role implies she has a team of lady’s maids helping cinch her into everything. It’s exhausting just looking at her.
If the show ends with her meeting Don Draper and eventually engaging in a murder-suicide with him, I will eat these words and admit it was the greatest show ever written.
Note to all writers: Be careful introducing kids into your stories, because you will quickly need to pretend they don’t exist, and it gets awkward.
And never admitted fault. She’s awful.
I guarantee you the cast engages in some serious breathing exercises.
You know how I know the writers understood how dull this scene is? They decided to have Rachel Brosnahan strip off her clothes and strut about in her underwear during most of it, for no discernible reason. Or, you know, for one very, very discernible reason.
Its twisted cousin in the world of writing tricks is when you slow … way … down … and examine every. single. mundane. detail.
I want this show to end with Midge Maisel’s eyes filling with white light as she rises off the floor, stretches out her arms, and vaporizes New York. I want this badly.