Davies: Amazon pilot ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ brings nuanced Judaism to forefront of television

‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ is produced by ‘Gilmore Girls’ show runners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino. (Courtesy of Amazon)

As an American Jew, I will always stand by the idea that American comedy is Jewish comedy, especially when it comes to television. Shows such as “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” explore the neuroses of American life through Jewish habits, whether cultural or religious, but often the character’s Jewishness is surface level. Now, Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Transparent” and Comedy Central’s “Broad City” feature characters with complex and layered Jewish identities.

These shows are all focused toward a different audience than a sitcom like “Seinfeld,” which had to cater to a wider network audience. “Mrs. Maisel” and its contemporaries are changing the way Jewish culture and mannerisms are presented in TV shows. Streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix are specialized in a way that makes finding niche shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” easy.

Gilmore Girls” showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Dan Palladino wrote the story of Midge Maisel, a 1950s housewife in New York City who becomes a stand-up comic after her husband leaves her. Midge’s Judaism is apparent from the moment the show starts; her wedding toast ends with an alarming joke: “Yes, there is shrimp in the egg rolls!”

Jokes like these can be confusing for non-Jews, but the show doesn’t sacrifice its Jewishness for anyone. When Midge’s parents find out that her husband recently left her, her dad remarks, “This is why we shouldn’t have sent you to that goyishe college.” The use of an insider Yiddish word, goy (a term that means non-Jew), instead of well-known Yiddish words like schmutz or schlep signifies the deep sense of Jewishness the show carries. “Goyishe” is a word that carries a special Jewish context, unlike schmutz, which has been absorbed into the American lexicon. On “Seinfeld,” only deeply religious characters might use “goyishe,” but Midge’s family doesn’t come across as super religious.

Sherman-Palladino grew up surrounded by Jewish comedy, so it makes sense that her next project after the ill-fated “Gilmore Girls revival is a tribute to female Jewish comedians like the late Joan Rivers. “Mrs. Maisel” is set to have two seasons come out in the next few years.

Other shows like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” also star Jewish comedians, but have a different approach to representation. “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David writes from the viewpoint of an upper-class Jewish man, but often his character’s Jewishness (in both “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is readily scrubbed over or accentuated for the sake of non-Jews’ comedic enjoyment. Shows such as this often, but not always, cater toward generalizations for the jokes to come across, often putting a Jewish audience in an uncomfortable place in which it relates to the characters, but feels like the representation is shallow.

In “Mrs. Maisel,” Sherman-Palladino experiments with perceptions of American Jews: Midge, with her upper-class New York accent and knack for making great brisket, seems to have it all. In some ways, “Mrs. Maisel,” with its kosher butchers, Yom Kippur breakfasts and Manischewitz wine-fueled monologues, is one of the most authentically Jewish shows to grace the TV since the original seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” 

Even though the show builds on a Jewish comedic foundation, there is enough in it comedically for non-Jews to check it out, even though the jokes may fly over their heads on occasion. People who loved “Gilmore Girls” for its fast-talking, witty dialogue will also love Midge’s inflections.

But for those in the Jewish community, “Mrs. Maisel” is something special. It’s not often minorities see themselves represented on screen and think, “Man, that’s authentic.” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is as Jewish and proud as can be. The show is only in its early stages, but the potential for its exploration of Jewish comedy and identity are exciting.

It might be too early to say this, but the questions “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” raises about Judaism and how it interacts with American culture are important. The representation goes deeper than surface level jokes about Jewish culture, but instead turns the mirror on its Jewish audience. Mazel tov (congratulations) to Amy Sherman-Palladino for making a pilot our ancestors would be proud of.

Watch the TV spot for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” below:

Follow Sararosa on Twitter @srosiedosie.

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