The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has a lot to prove coming into its second season. The Amazon comedy cleaned up at the Emmys, including wins for writing, directing and best comedy series, putting the pressure on Season 2 to live up to Season 1's gold-draped high bar. Season 2 is definitely more ambitious than the first effort -- if this season doesn't add a production design Emmy to the collection it will be a TV crime -- but the first five episodes screened for critics leave it unclear whether Season 2 actually surpasses its immaculate predecessor.
The premiere picks up shortly after the Season 1 finale with Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) performing miracles in the B. Altman operator basement. There's nothing this girl isn't great at, at least at first sight. It's not long before Midge is pulled away by a family crisis: Her mother ran away to Paris. By the end of the first act, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino are flexing their creative muscles; they make 1950s Paris feel like the dream every 14-year old girl in the journal aisle of Target believes it to be.
The whimsy is creatively balanced with story, though. The standout scene of the series features Midge performing an impromptu set in a French drag club, inviting a blonde, bilingual audience member to interpret her jokes for the crowd. As Midge delivers a patented Palladino tongue-twister of a monologue, flashing back to the immediate moments after Joel (Michael Zegen) saw her routine at The Gaslight in the Season 1 finale, her interpreter delivers the French interpretation. The bounce between Midge and the interpreter is a breathtaking display of vocal olympics, while the flashbacks deliver a heartbreaking reality check to the dizzying wonder in present time. It's a masterpiece of performance, editing and decoration.
The Palladinos' talent for style was never in question though, and with a bigger budget in Season 2 they were able to create a beautiful and varied spectacle. Later episodes take Midge to decadent, new theaters and ballrooms, and a sojourn to The Catskills gives off familiar Dirty Dancingvibes. In terms of production, Season 2 wastes no time in showing how it outgrew Season 1, but does the series actually build on its solid foundation?
The crux of Season 1 was not just Midge discovering her hidden talent as a stand-up comedienne, but the struggle to foster her hidden passion while trying to maintain some semblance of perfection as her personal life fell apart. The juice of the season was the dichotomy between Midge on stage, unpolished and unfiltered, and the Midge presented to her family and friends trying to keep it together after her husband left her for another woman. Part of what makes the Season 1 finale, which won Brosnahan her Emmy, was those two worlds colliding and what that could mean for Midge in the future.
Even though Season 2 picks up shortly after that Season 1 cliffhanger, it doesn't move beyond it until the end of the five episodes critics were given in advance. For the first five episodes, Midge is still trying to balance her comedy and home lives, and does everything she can to keep them separate. As fun as it is to watch her be almost perfect at everything -- swimsuit contests, coat checking, dating and more -- her struggle is the real meat of the series. We know Midge is witty, talented and devoted to her family, but can she have it all? Can she really give everything it will take to be a world famous comic? Does she even want that if she can't bear the thought of anyone in her family finding out about what she's been doing during her late nights out? Season 2 takes a slow walk to getting to these questions after setting up such a gutting collision of Midge's worlds in the Season 1 finale.
Here are the facts: The Palladinos have not lost their touch when it comes to eloquent, mile-a-minute scripts. The vignettes incorporated into the second season are witty, hilarious and a huge part of what makes this series so delightful. The performances remain top notch, with Zachary Levi entering shortly after the start of the season as an intriguing new addition to Midge's complicated life. It seems like everyone around Midge is evolving from the cataclysm of the first season: Joel is taking responsibility for his life and his actions, Susie (Alex Borstein) is pushing herself far out of her comfort zone to get her and Midge to the next level and even Midge's parents are making ardent attempts to listen to each other.
But Midge needs to face a real challenge for us to see Midge grow. That challenge arrives midway through the season so we can't say whether Midge, and Maisel Season 2, rise to it, but we can say that we're very eager to find out.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel premieres Wednesday, Dec. 5 on Amazon.