You may have already seen season one of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel after ordering books, paper towels, or whatever you buy on Amazon Prime. The series took home eight Emmy awards in 2018—including the prize for "outstanding comedy series"—and critics have applauded the series for its portrayal of a woman in a man's world.
But just as important is the portrayal of a newborn New York counterculture that didn't want anything to do with the state. These people just wanted to be left the fuck alone.
Midge Maisel is a fictional late-1950s Upper West Side New York housewife, who discovers after her husband leaves her that she has a knack for stand-up comedy. The domestic life she thought she wanted goes up in smoke. With nowhere to go, she stumbles onto an East Village comedy club stage and in a self-deprecating manner tells the audience exactly how she feels. The night ends with Maisel flashing her breasts to the audience and getting arrest for indecent exposure. En route to jail, she runs into Lenny Bruce, a real comedian of the era who was routinely arrested for telling allegedly obscene jokes onstage. Bruce just wanted to pursue cutting-edge comedy for an audience that wanted to hear it. Maisel is cut from the same cloth.
As Maisel is arrested, the comedy club erupts in support. It's indicative of a time when Village residents were feeling the encroachment of the state all around them. In one episode, Maisel encounters a protest against the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway—a real project spearheaded by Robert Moses—slated to slice through middle of Washington Square Park. The rally is lead by Jane Jacobs, the real-life activist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Jacobs thought central planners shouldn't get to decide what a city should be, but rather individuals should be left to make the choices that determine how a community grows and functions. (Reason on Jacobs.)
Perhaps the most individualistic theme of the show is that Maisel doesn't even fall into the second-wave feminist category that history books associate with her time. Her brand of feminism is less about being part of a movement and more about personal choice. She wants to skip between her proper Upper-West-Side life and the loose, pot-smoking world of a downtown comedy club whenever she sees fit.
Maisel is building her own world. And that includes pearls, bright red lipstick, and saying fuck a lot. And it's pretty fucked up to send in the cops for just that.
The second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel premieres December 5 on Amazon Prime.
Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Meredith Bragg and Austin Bragg.
Photos of Lenny Bruce; Credit: LFI/Photoshot/Newscom
Photos of Jane Jacobs in home; Credit: Ron Bull/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Photo of Jane Jacobs in front of house; Credit: Frank Lennon/ZUMA Press/Newscom