Season 3 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime) starts off in the too show-offy fashion that marks the worst excesses of writer-director Amy Sherman-Palladino. Comedian Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) opens for singer Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain) at a tour-launching USO show, and there are colorful costumes, long panning shots, tons of extras, and big music numbers. But after episode one, something remarkable happens in the following seven: “Maisel” no longer feels the need to prove itself, and it even features moments of subtlety – yes, subtlety from Amy and Daniel Palladino (who each take four episodes this season).
The batting average isn’t 1.000 – the storyline of Susie (Alex Borstein) managing stuck-up comedy legend Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) hits particularly off-putting notes – but it’s close. As it moves into 1960, the series juggles a lot of people and issues, and some threads pop up so randomly you wonder if scenes were mistakenly excised. Out of nowhere, Abe (Tony Shalhoub) has an old theater friend, Asher (“Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander). Ben (Zachary Levi), dumped by Midge last season so she can tour with Shy, is suddenly back in play just when you thought the writers forgot about him.
Some gags keep going to the well after it has run dry, notably Moishe’s (Kevin Pollak) lack of interest in wearing pants when he’s at home. Overall, it’s a chaotic season even by the Palladinos’ standards, although that fits with Midge’s first international tour and the upheaval in everyone’s lives. The unemployed Weissmans are temporarily living with the Maisels, and Joel (Michael Zegen) is opening a music club in Chinatown.
But the best moments snuck up on me in understated fashion. The date (or almost-date) between Midge and edgy (for the time) comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) in episode five is among the most beautiful yet non-bombastic things Amy has ever written and directed. OK, the club features a tribal dance of some sort, but Amy hangs a hat on that with a Midge joke and then lets the camera soak up the chemistry between Brosnahan and Kirby.
Midge and Lenny intimately dance amid a red lighting palette, and both admit they can’t think of anything funny to say. At Bruce’s hotel room door, he says maybe someday he’ll be ready to open himself up to romantic feelings. It’s a date and an expression of love without either of those things being clearly stated.
It also marks a first for the Palladino-verse: Fans are getting something they want (Midge and Lenny) in a non-clunky way. Compare that to the producers’ previous attempts at fan service, awkwardly announcing Michel’s sexual orientation and the existence of Lane’s dad in “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” (2016). Yet it’s the best of both worlds: The Palladinos don’t have to commit to this; it could merely be a “What if?” And I suspect it will stay that way, in part because Bruce (1925-66) was a real person and Midge is a fictional character. Adding too many new details to Bruce’s life could take “Maisel” away from its focus.
Besides, who needs real historical figures when the made-up ones pop so much? Exhibit A is Shy Baldwin. (I admit I had to look it up. He’s not a real person.) It could get annoying that Midge repeatedly ends her sets by introducing Shy to an enthusiastic crowd, but I got into the touring vibe. This is because Shy’s songs are not mere placeholders. A mixture of original songs (by Curtis Moore and Tom Mizer) and a few covers, they ring true as 1960 pop hits.
McClain shimmies and gestures like a stage star of the era, justifying the crowd going wild more so than Midge’s act. (Admittedly, a viewer sometimes has to suspend disbelief about how popular Midge’s sets are. It’s not too hard, though. I tell myself this is what sold in that era.)
The Palladinos have a rough history with portraying gay characters or anything on the PC edge; Lorelai and Rory are famously homophobic, and then there’s Michel suddenly being gay, and some people also take issue with the lack of defined sexual orientation for Susie. But “Maisel” Season 3 closes with Midge receiving a career blow after oversharing about a gay colleague in a particularly riff-heavy set. Midge’s career misstep is the narrative takeaway, but the writing takeaway is that Amy smooths the rough edges of her storytelling instincts and says something poignant about being a gay famous person in 1960.
McClain is the breakout recurring star, but Shalhoub remains the reliable scene-stealer. He not only sells Abe’s heretofore unexplored interest in the theater and civil liberties causes (after attending a show where Bruce is arrested under indecency laws), but also his annoyance with the pants-optional Maisels. My vote for most improved character goes to Joel; I’m rooting for him to find success with his club and in his relationship with Mei (Stephanie Hsu), who might be labeled as a Chinese version of Midge — but I suspect there’s more to her.
The Palladinos’ tendency to cast the same people in all their series continues, but it’s less blunt now. Maybe because of the outfit and era-appropriate glasses, maybe because she’s less brash than Paris and Milly, I didn’t initially recognize Liza Weil as the bass player in Shy’s band.
“Maisel’s” incredible (and probably incredibly expensive) production design impeccably sells the era as the Shy/Midge tour goes to Miami and Las Vegas and back to New York, being less showy (a roomful of yellow teddy bears notwithstanding) as the season goes forward. Also, the tour stops are shorter than the Catskills detour in Season 2, perhaps another instance of the Palladinos listening to fans and critics.
But the era also gives back by being a catch-all explanation for Midge’s overarching problem: that she can’t be both 1) a married family woman and 2) a professional comedian. Every taken-for-granted fact of today was a revelation in the past, so I don’t hold it against Midge. At some point she’s going to realize she can be a wife and a professional (apparently becoming the first woman in history to reach that conclusion), and it’s going to be more worthy of applause than her best zinger. But if that’s a series-finale revelation, I hope it takes her a long time to get there, because I want a lot more “Maisel.”