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How adding a black character made the show's blind spots even worse
I love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-- an unabashed declaration that's earned me more than a few skeptical stares from fellow black TV critics. Still, I must confess that I adore the colors, the sense of movement, the quippy dialogue, and the costumes (oh man, the costumes!!) that make the show feel like the TV equivalent of an afternoon stroll in Paris.
Perhaps that's why, in the past, I've looked the other way when it came to the show's somewhat clumsy handling of race, like that time in Season 1 when Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) met some hip, pot-smoking Negroes (as they'd have been called at the time) downtown who show up only to electrify her world. As awkward as moments like these are, I thought they were at least realistic. It is entirely plausible, after all, that a sheltered, wealthy, and self-absorbed housewife from the Upper West Side would lack awareness about the major sociopolitical movements of the day. I don't believe every story owes me a representation of myself; indeed, one of the things I've most loved about Maisel was how it offers an enchanting escape into a world and culture totally unlike my own.
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Yet even after some valid and persistent critiques of Maisel's blind spots in Season 1, and not much of a change in Season 2, I hoped that Season 3 would demonstrate some progress in finding the balance between reality and diversity that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino said she and the writers were trying to achieve -- especially since Season 3 added a black man, Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), as a main character. No such luck. Somehow, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's fumbling got even worse.
A big clue about how the season would fare comes at the beginning of the first episode, set in 1960. Midge opens for Shy at a United Service Organizations show. It is a success: Midge and Shy dazzle the troops. Yet there's no hint of any kind of racial tension, prejudice, or even awe at this mixed-race bill. It's puzzling, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility: The USO has had an official policy since it began in 1941 that "expressly forbade discrimination on the basis of race or creed" -- years before the United States Army officially desegregated in 1948 -- and its talent lineup sometimes included black stars, including actress-comedian-singer Hattie McDaniel and ragtime composer Eubie Blake.
Maisel sometimes delivers sociopolitical commentary with subtle ironies, like the continued cracks around Susie's (Alex Borstein) gender, so when Midge is asked to sing "White Christmas" and explains why she doesn't know the tune, astute observers may see this as velvet-hammer commentary on the prejudice Jewish people can face. But when it comes to examining the prejudice faced by people outside the Maisels' white world, the show keeps falling short. Maisel lives in a stylized dreamscape where everyone dresses beautifully and speaks in free verse, and while Sherman-Palladino & Co. have a right to present a vision of their world as they see it, the total absence of friction around the black man's presence (with a white woman opening for him!) requires a suspension of disbelief that's distracting for a story set in this tumultuous time in history.
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The unrealistic, sanitized unity of Season 3's first episode is confusing, but by Episode 3, Maisel begins to stretch the limits of credulity -- and my patience. Midge, Susie, and the rest of the act hit Vegas, where Shy's got a gig at a casino. Amid the dazzling lights and pling-plings! of machines, Midge scurries about adorably, while Shy and his entourage enjoy the casino. It's a shiny tableau that glosses over some ugly, important truths. Las Vegas was notoriously racist during the era depicted in the show -- so much so that people called it "The Mississippi of the West" at the time. Yes, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald famously serenaded audiences there, but as a matter of course, black performers were not allowed to stay in the hotels or patronize the casinos apart from their shows. They had to stay in black hotels often miles away from the Strip, and had to use back entrances to prevent mingling with white guests. And although Las Vegas mythology has Sammy Davis Jr. yukking it up with fellow Rat Pack homies Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Frank Sinatra, the truth behind the happy imagery was much more complicated; even Sinatra's insistence that Davis be treated the same way as his white friends didn't free Davis entirely from experiencing discrimination in the town. By 1960, the very year Midge and Shy show up, black leaders in Las Vegas had had enough and demanded full integration, but that took many more years to institute in actual practice. So to see someone in Shy's entourage chatting with Midge in the casino lobby is bewildering, and to see Shy showered with giddy, totally bias-free adoration from an all-white press feels like a deliberate revision of history that obscures the truth to avoid making people uncomfortable. But black viewers who might remember this time or have heard firsthand accounts of this time and place from relatives don't get the luxury of misremembering.
Television gives creators license to have their characters flirt with the laws of common sense and historical accuracy, but to pretend they were immune to actual laws and regulations that would have affected character choices makes it seem like we're watching a cartoon. And at this point, when the show seems to desperately need some substance to latch on to, Maisel's fairy-tale denial of prejudice as a suffocating, all-informing force robs the story of resonance and power. Maisel did not need to turn Shy's arc into a teachable moment per se, but treating racism the same way it treats feminism, homophobia, and the other realities and social issues of the era would have gone a long way to abate its persistent obliviousness. Maisel, after all, has no problem weaving in other sociopolitical analysis; Midge's tempered revolt against middle-class expectations of women, and married mothers like herself, is the feminist structure that informs the show. One of her bits this season includes a missive about "the pill" -- the contraceptive fundamentally linked to the feminist movement -- and she cleverly riffs on suffragettes, too. Elsewhere, Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) is held up as a champion of free speech, and Midge's dad, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), befriends a crew of beatniks who disavow consumerism and capitalism. Midge even quits a voiceover job on account of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the script. She flat-out calls it racist, making her, the white woman, the only person who experiences racism in the entire season. These choices border on infuriating.
Late in the season, Midge learns two big things about Shy, and one of them is his actual name. It's fine that more than half of the season goes by before we learn it, because that reveal is in service of a bigger point about Shy's inner life that I won't spoil here. Still, is Shy from the South or the Midwest? Is he close with his family, or does he have talents other than singing? Does he like rain, or animals, or prefer the city over the country? We know so very little about him, and when he tells Midge he can't go back to her Miami hotel as she's suggested because he's not allowed, that's the totality of the complications we see Shy experience because of his skin color. Shy mostly functions to grant Midge access to a black world she respects but floats in and out of to further her own interests. Honestly, why did Maisel even bother to integrate a black character into the season if it didn't intend to show him dealing with being black?
Maisel has had to address accusations of anti-Semitic tones in the past, and while that's not a topic I'd be equipped to speak on, it is true that the show gives viewers insight into one Jewish family's customs -- from the bris to food to attitudes about marriage. There is no equivalent for the black characters. We see black people in swinging parties in Harlem, we go to a black barbershop, we even go to the legendary Apollo theater -- but none of these experiences offer any understanding of the black experience at all. It's unintentionally meta, recycling that centuries-old adage that black people can entertain white audiences with music and sports but still not be equal, or in this case not really seen. They are to perform and vanish, never daring to burst the bubble of white naiveté that keeps the money flowing.
This is not to call Midge Maisel a racist per se; she is compassionate and open-hearted, if notoriously self-centered. She treats black colleagues and passersby with the same fleeting "now back to me" narcissism with which she treats everyone else, and she even enters black spaces with a humility that borders on reverence. In the finale, just before she goes on stage at the Apollo, she wisely considers that maybe she shouldn't perform there, that maybe this is a space where her presence might steal attention away from the black performers it serves. (She would not have been unwelcome there, however; rock and roll singers Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy are among the white artists who entertained black or mixed audiences at the Apollo before and after the time depicted.) Midge goes on to do her set, but ends up betraying Shy by mocking him in her act. As a result, he fires her. We'll have to wait until next season to find out if they ever see each other again, but maybe splitting from Shy forever is for the best. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel still has a lot of work to do in figuring out how it's going to balance being in this world but not of it, and that is work it needs to do without treating its only black character as an ornament. As for me, I'll likely still watch the just-announced Season 4, only with lowered expectations and an unwillingness to defend its blind spot any longer. Unlike the creators, I can't pretend to ignore reality.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Seasons 1-3 are streaming on Amazon Prime.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)