February 24, 2020

NYC Exhibit Marvels at ‘Mrs. Maisel’ Costumes and Set Pieces

Making Maisel Marvelous featuring costumes and sets from season two of Amazon Prime Video's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. At The Paley Center for Media August 10-September 6 Photo by: Marion Curtis / StarPix for The Paley Center

When the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” dropped in March 2017, my TV viewing time was occupied by my then 7-year-old and, at first glance, the Amazon Prime show didn’t seem appropriate. When I inadvertently walked through a film shoot on Madison Avenue, my interest was piqued but no one here was really talking about it.

Then the second season was released last December, and that’s all everyone was talking about. When I would mention that I hadn’t yet had a chance to check it out, friends would literally stop in the middle of a street and shout: “OMG, you of all people must watch it.” So I finally did. In fact, for 48 hours, that’s all I did. And then I tried to get everyone I know to watch it. 

If the person wasn’t Jewish, I would say, “I’ll explain it to you — just look at the fabulous clothes.” But every time I made follow-up inquiries, they would say, “You don’t have to explain anything — the entire show is fabulous.”

The writers, Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Daniel Palladino, have been able to brilliantly take the particulars of a Jewish family in 1950s New York City and make it universally appealing. So appealing that it recently received 20 Emmy nominations, more than any other comedy; so appealing that the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan created an exclusive exhibit called “Making Maisel Marvelous,” on view until Sept. 6.

When I arrived at the press preview, my first question was: Why did the Paley Center think that the show — though gorgeously shot mostly in New York, with beautifully crafted sets and costumes — had cultural significance? 

For Jews today, bogged down with deepening hate and violence, Midge is a composite of both who we are — strong, fiery and creative — and who we need to be.

“Every year, the Paley Center presents exhibits of work that offers a unique combination of artistry and entertainment,” said Teresa Brady, director of communications. “The show perfectly captures the drive of a woman ahead of her time, who wants to carve out a life beyond just being a mother and wife.”

The fact that the main character, Midge, had to deal with a difficult personal transition is part of why my friends were so emphatic that I had to see it. The other part is that clothes play an outsized role in the show as, yes, OK, they do in my life.

The Catskills set pieces and costumes from the Making Maisel Marvelous exhibit. 
Photo by: Marion Curtis / StarPix for The Paley Center

After touring the lush, interactive sets — the hair salon from the Catskills, the booth from the Stage Deli, the B. Altman switchboard, the TV set from the Arthritis Telethon — I watched a montage of clips from the first two seasons. It occurred to me that Midge resonates for women not only because she is strong, brave and breaks boundaries, but because she does all of this with her femininity in tow; in fact, it often seems as though she gains strength from her femininity, from her coy sexuality.  

As I walked up Madison, past department stores that resemble the old B. Altman, I felt proud. Sure, we’ve had Jewish heroines on film and TV — “Funny Girl,” “Rhoda,” “The Nanny” — but notably not many. The show also honors Jewish treasures — Lenny Bruce, the Catskill resorts, lavish holiday dinners — while never forgetting that Jews worked their way up from lower East Side tenements to be able to have this life. 

The fact that it appeared at the onset of the worst anti-Semitism since World War II is rather breathtaking.

Or maybe that’s precisely why it resonates. The show — with Season 3 dropping on Dec. 6 — offers a gorgeous, funny escape from the dreariness of not just politics but our culture, where every act is seen as a political. Midge is bold and ambitious, but the writers knew better than to announce at every turn that she personified feminism. “We didn’t want it to feel political,” Sherman-Palladino said, “but rather relevant to young women today.”

As a result, they created a timeless, transcendent work of art: The now iconic Midge will resonate for girls all over the world, decades from now. 

As for Jews today, bogged down daily with deepening hate and violence, Midge is a composite of both who we are — strong, fiery and creative — and who we need to be.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.