Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel continues Midge's (Rachel Brosnahan) quest to become a successful stand-up comic in the early 1960s and showcases the truly marvelous outfits she wears along the way. When it comes to spectacle, Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Dan Palladino haven't lost their touch, but the substance beneath the glitz and glamour is starting to look a bit shallow.
When we last saw Midge, she was having a one-night stand with her estranged husband Joel (Michael Zegen) before heading out on tour with singer Shy Baldwin (Leroy McCain), a gig that could transform her entire career. Season 3 picks up not long afterward, with Midge now having mixed feelings about her and Joel's connection as she heads out on the road.
The complicated relationship between Midge and Joel remains one of the show's richest pools of interest as both of them struggle to move forward while admitting they'll always be drawn to each other in one way or another. The Palladinos have expertly figured out how to keep the heat alive in this "will-they-won't-they" scenario by constantly changing the audience's mind on whether the couple should reconcile or not, and the first five episodes of the season -- the only ones made available for review -- make a decent argument that Midge and Joel have the potential to be just as happy with other people as they were with each other. It's a complicated situation, but those complications make for Masiel's most intriguing and delicious scenes, especially in Season 3.
With Midge hitting the road this season, the world of Maisel is expanding. The growth means new characters as Midge makes her way around the country with Shy and his band. Liza Weil shows up as a character that is refreshingly the opposite of her Gilmore Girls alter-ego Paris Gellar and becomes a sherpa for Midge in her complicated road life. Their dynamic is an interesting mirror to Midge's relationship with Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) as she comes into her own as a comic and as a single woman.
However, as Midge's world expands, keeping track of things back home becomes a bit more tedious for the series. Without Midge turning her parents' lives upside down, they must find their own relevance without her. Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle deliver flawless performances as Abe and Rose Weissman, but their foibles in the midst of Midge's booming career feel forced and distracting when there are bigger issues to tackle that directly relate to our protagonist. The Weissmans' struggles seem like a distraction rather than a direct problem for Midge, at least until Episode 5. While no one is trying to deny Shalhoub or Hinkle another Emmy nomination, the time spent following them trying to find themselves could have been used to clarify the larger world of Maisel as a whole.
Here's where it gets messy. Midge is an affluent, young, attractive, white woman going on the road with a black lounge singer, but that never truly comes up within the show despite the tense time period this tour is taking place in. Outside of Sterling K. Brown's character Reggie explaining that he's Shy's real manager but they've hired a white man to act as Shy's manager for public appearances, the issue of race doesn't come up.
The lack of acknowledgement of the obvious political ramifications of Midge going on this tour is strong enough to make one wonder if Maisel is operating in an alternative version of America's past without Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, or segregation. The show goes above and beyond to demonstrate how Midge is a phenomenon for trying to carve out a career for herself post-divorce, making herself the poster child of the modern woman. It feels strange that the show wouldn't acknowledge what a risk it would be for someone of Midge's social standing to open for a black singer in the Civil Rights era.
Season 3 has 10 episodes, which means that there's still room for the series to delve into those issues, but if Maisel continues to skirt over the most serious issue of the time that it's set in, its claim of authenticity will deservedly be questioned. The spectacle doesn't hold up in the long term without substance and good writing becomes less relevant if you aren't talking about what matters.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 3 premieres Friday, Dec. 6 on Amazon.