by Gerry Conway
There are many reasons to watch this show on Amazon Prime set in 1958 New York City – terrific writing and direction, wonderful and funny performances, and mouth-watering art direction – but one possibly unintended benefit is the view it provides of a vanished American species: the upwardly mobile, culturally secure, highly educated middle class.
Midge Maisel’s father is a professor of mathematics at Columbia University. He earns what I would assume was considered at the time a reasonable middle class salary as a tenured professor (he’s not a department head). With that salary, he put a daughter through Radcliffe College, employs a maid, lives in an expansive Upper West Side apartment, and supports a stay-at-home wife.
I’ve read reviews by younger Generation-X and Millennial writers who apparently think this is a ridiculous fantasy. Sadly, that says more about those writers’ experiences and expectations in post-Reagan America than it does about the realism of a show set in post-World War II boom-time United States.
My first wife’s father was an attorney in New York City in the 1940s, ‘50s and ’60s with a modest one-man practice. He didn’t consider himself particularly successful, just comfortably middle class. He put my wife through college, owned a lovely co-op apartment in Greenwich Village four blocks from Washington Square Park, drove a BMW (which he parked in a private garage), and supported a stay-at-home wife. They enjoyed Broadway theater and Lincoln Center concerts, spent winter holidays skiing in Vermont, and lived the kind of New York lifestyle only investment bankers can afford today on an income in the mid five figures.
What the fuck happened?
Reagan Republicanism is what happened.
Until the 1980s, it was quite possible for a University professor or a solo-practice lawyer (or a professional writer of comic books) to imagine and achieve a lifestyle similar to that of Midge Maisel’s family.
(In 1975 I lived on the Upper West Side in an apartment that wasn’t very different from the apartment Midge Maisel and her erstwhile schlemiel of a husband enjoy in the series. As we were leaving New York, in 1976, the building was about to go co-op, meaning we could have bought our apartment for $50,000; at the time, I was making about $40,000 a year, so it would’ve been easy. Today that apartment is worth upwards of $3,000,000– plus $2000-3000 monthly maintenance.)
It was not inevitable that the dream of the educated, upwardly mobile middle class in America had to end. It was the deliberate consequence of political decisions designed to favor financial industries like banking and investment over creative and artisanal and industrial industries like the arts and manufacturing. Undermining unions, reducing funding for the arts, discouraging philanthropy in favor of familial wealth accumulation, cutting spending on education, aggravating class conflict between blue collar workers and the middle class (Hardhats versus Eggheads) was all part of the right-wing Reagan Revolution plan to crush the ability of educated progressive professionals to oppose the slow gutting of the New Deal social compact that powered postwar American prosperity.
The Reaganites won. They won so thoroughly that a depiction of typical, moderately successful educated middle class life in 1958 seems to contemporary viewers as silly and unrealistic fantasy.
It wasn’t a fantasy then; it shouldn’t be a fantasy now. The fact that many in my children’s generation see that life as unattainable is one of the saddest results of four decades of Republican economic dominance I can imagine.
There are many reasons we can’t and shouldn’t try to recreate the postwar America depicted in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (that postwar social system supported and depended on gender and racial roles that would be anathema to us today) but there’s no reason to believe that as a country we’re doomed to a continuing spiral of downward expectations.
The aspirational, educated upward mobility depicted in “Mrs. Maisel” shouldn’t be perceived as an impossible fantasy. It should be viewed as a stolen birthright.
We know who stole it. Reaganites, Republicans, Investment Bankers, Financial Wizards, Inherited Wealth, Corporations, and the One Percent.
It’s time we took it back.
Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.