Housewife tackles stand-up in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and W1A sees light side of BBC

A housewife tries to crack the male-dominated world of stand-up in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and W1A offers a lighter side of the broadcaster BBC

The problem with television shows about comedians is that when the characters get on stage, they are usually not all that funny.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, about a 1950s housewife who becomes a stand-up comic, manages to clear the bar and make you laugh - but only just, and only if you remind yourself that what she was saying would have been edgy for the time.

This comedy-drama has other merits, though. Rachel Brosnahan (House Of Cards) is Midge, a young, well-born wife and mother who lives the perfect life: She went to a good college, married a nice Jewish boy, Joel Maisel, and has an impeccable home and wardrobe.

She dutifully accompanies Joel to comedy clubs so he can fulfil his dream of becoming a comic, bribing the club manager with homemade brisket so he can get a better spot.

But it turns out Joel is not especially talented, steals jokes from other comics and is cheating on her with his secretary. When she finds out, she drunkenly takes to the stage and brings the house down, although her raunchy antics get her arrested.

She and manager Susie (Alex Borstein) then have to figure out how to crack the very male-dominated world of stand-up.


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The show was dreamt up by Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls (2000 to 2007) and Bunheads (2012 to 2013), and fans will spot her fingerprints all over it: a single woman trying to make it on her own, armed with a mile-a-minute wit.

Yet while the quippy banter on Gilmore Girls was often done for its sake, here, there is a more barbed social commentary about gender politics in a country on the verge of a sexual revolution, as well as a story about marriage and compromise.

Midge's meteoric rise strains the bounds of credibility, but although the story references real comics of the time, this is more of an aspirational alternate history.

Some of the jokes are not bad either and, as a sensory experience, the eight episodes are thoroughly enjoyable, with superb period costumes, decor and music.

W1A is the postcode of the BBC's London headquarters, Broadcasting House - the setting for this mockumentary-slash-workplace comedy.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel's Rachel Brosnahan and W1A's Hugh Bonneville and Hugh Skinner. PHOTOS: AMAZON PRIME VIDEO, BBC

It is itself a BBC-produced series, so you are watching the venerable British broadcaster satirise itself and make fun of its tendency to do the same.

Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) is Ian Fletcher, former head of London's 2012 Summer Olympics delivery committee (a role he first played in the 2011 comedy Twenty Twelve).

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel's Rachel Brosnahan and W1A's Hugh Bonneville (left) and Hugh Skinner. PHOTOS: AMAZON PRIME VIDEO, BBC

In the episodes reviewed - the first two of Series 1 (there are three seasons) - he is starting a job as the BBC's new "head of values". No one has any idea what that means, although Ian urgently sets up a "Way Ahead" task force whose remit is "to think big thoughts and clarify the purpose of the BBC in a digital age".

Framing it is the sort of fatuous documentary organisations make in-house, the idiotic commentary of the narrator (David Tennant) mirroring the self-serious corporate speak of the staff.

Ian speaks of feeling "at the centre of something genuinely important - and part of my job is to establish where that centre is, and also exactly what it's in the middle of".

Job descriptions are the sort of gobbledygook that passes for edgy when corporations attempt to "rebrand".

Thus there is "the director of strategic governance, one of the corporation's most strategic directors", a "senior technical services choreographer" who conducts "digital handshake sessions" to orient new staff; and daily "damage-limitation team meetings" - all of which accomplish precisely nothing.

The minutiae of workplace politics are well-observed. One of Ian's new colleagues clearly resents him and expresses it through a sort of low-grade passive-aggressive warfare. And meetings are crammed with subtle attempts to furiously signal competence.

Ian is soon plunged into his first crisis when a former news reader claims to have been sidelined because she is from Cornwall, and believes the BBC has an "anti-West Country bias" - a story broken by none other than BBC News, a dig at the corporation's dogged neutrality.

The satire is spot on, but even in these episodes, some jokes repeat and you can see this getting tiresome.

And while this does suggest the ability of the BBC to laugh at itself, it feels a little performative. You get the sense punches have been pulled - no surprise, perhaps, given who signs the writers' pay cheques.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2017, with the headline 'Finding laughs in unusual places '. Subscribe