Golden Globe Winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Stars a Retro Heroine for Modern Times

5 minute read

The writers behind Amazon’s new series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is now streaming, set high expectations for their protagonist when they chose their title. Fortunately, the woman at the center of the show, a 1950s housewife turned stand-up comic in the vein of Joan Rivers named Midge Maisel, is indeed marvelous. In her first comedy routine, she jokes that she’s become a cliché–her husband has left her for his secretary–and ends the night flashing the crowd and being dragged off by the police. Every jab at an audience member or police officer is pulled off with irresistible self-assuredness and charm–qualities you might expect to see in Sam Malone or Jerry Seinfeld, but rarely find in a female lead.

The creator of Mrs. Maisel, Amy Sherman-Palladino, has a strong track record when it comes to bringing assertive women to the screen. For years, on her beloved prime-time hit Gilmore Girls, the mother-daughter duo of Lorelai and Rory chattered away with each other as they fearlessly took on the world: Rory went from bookish high schooler to journalist, Lorelai from young single mom to small-business owner. Sherman-Palladino, along with her husband and Gilmore Girls collaborator Dan Palladino, have endowed Mrs. Maisel’s Midge with the same stubbornness and volubility that made Lorelai a fan favorite.

Sherman-Palladino shares these traits with her leading women. A decade after Gilmore Girls’ finale, she still maintains that she has not watched the episodes of Gilmore Girls that she did not write, and during the interview Palladino jokes that he has to check his wife’s pulse when she lets him answer a question without interjecting.

Still, Mrs. Maisel represents a development in Sherman-Palladino’s writing. While Lorelai butted heads with her oppressive, buttoned-up parents, Midge is delighted to play the part of dutiful daughter and wife. “What I didn’t want to do–because it had been done so often before–is write a woman living in the ’50s gazing out the window wondering if there’s more to life,” says Sherman-Palladino. “Midge actually loves her life.” Midge has no reservations about waking up in the wee hours to apply makeup and sneak back into bed before her husband gets up, or bribing a Greenwich Village comedy-club owner with brisket in exchange for stage time for her husband, a businessman with stand-up aspirations.

Until she does. In the first of eight hour-long episodes, Midge finds out that her husband is cheating on her and–worse, in her eyes–stealing his material from other comics. The betrayal sends her on a drunken rant onstage, where she proves that she’s the one in the Maisel family with comedic chops. But instead of having Midge disavow her domestic life and become a feminist disrupter of the comedy scene, Mrs. Maisel explores a more sophisticated tension. Midge has thrived in her confined life and is wary of stepping beyond the cultural bounds.

“There’s the Midge that wants to look beautiful and revels in her femininity, and then there’s the Midge who wants to get onstage and say whatever she wants,” says Sherman-Palladino. “She feels pulled to those two different lives, and that’s something we can play with for however long this show runs.” That will likely be a long time. Before the first season even premiered, Amazon ordered a second.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel hews much closer to Sherman-Palladino’s real life than Gilmore Girls ever did. While the battles between Lorelai and her Waspy parents provided much of the tension in that series, Sherman-Palladino was able to draw from conflicts in her own Jewish family to create the banter between Midge and her parents, played by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle. “At times, we wrote Gilmore Girls incredibly Jewish. We just had a bunch of goyim saying the words,” she says. “But their conflict was often suppressed and simmering. At least in my experience, with Jewish families, it’s more of an outward battle.”

And the concept for the show was born straight from Sherman-Palladino’s childhood: her father was a stand-up, and as a teenager she sold cigarettes at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t take too much therapy to figure out where this idea came from,” she says. But dropping Midge in the Mad Men era wasn’t just an homage to Sherman-Palladino’s father. In 1958, comedians began to transition to the observational humor that is still in vogue today. That presented new opportunities for women. “History is generally told by men about men,” says Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge. “To have a period piece being told by a woman about an extraordinary woman is exciting.”

The Palladinos, who left Gilmore Girls before the last season of the show’s original run over disputes with the WB (now known as the CW), have hit their stride on streaming services. Last year, they produced four new episodes for a Netflix miniseries, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Both Netflix and Amazon, they say, have given them more freedom–and financial backing–to execute their vision than networks ever did. Given their druthers, the duo prefer to focus less on romantic cliffhangers and more on relationships between women. “With Amy, you know you’re not going to be playing a sitcom mom or a wet-blanket wife or a put-upon girlfriend,” says longtime Palladino collaborator Alex Borstein of her role as Midge’s manager and unlikely friend. “This reminds me of Rhoda and Mary from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Despite its anachronistic setting, there’s something timely about Mrs. Maisel. While Midge’s full-bodied skirts may belong to the last century, her stand-up is of the Amy Schumer era and her gumption is in line with the protesters at the Women’s March. “We wanted Midge to have a very modern appeal,” says Sherman-Palladino. “She’s not your grandmother’s character. This isn’t a precious little period piece.”

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