Two-thirds of the way into the pilot of Amazon Studios’ The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, there’s a moment that underscores just how unflappable Rachel Brosnahan’s uptown Jewish housewife heroine, Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, truly is.
Her business suit-wearing wannabe stand-up hack of a husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), drops the news on the eve of what will be a very busy Yom Kippur (they got the Rabbi to come over, finally) that he’s leaving Midge for his secretary Penny—and with his wife’s suitcase no less.
“You’re leaving me for a girl who can’t figure out how to sharpen pencils?” stings Midge.
“I need to start over,” Joel groans.
“With her? She wins?” Midge asks—without tears—before slamming Joel. “Can I just say you have the worst timing ever?”
Then comes her punchline: “Grab some pens on the way out, you’re going to need them.”
At which point, Midge, left alone in the night, retreats to the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, where she purges herself by railing against her hubby on stage; one of the first of many open mics in her rise as a budding stand-up in 1958.
“Over the years in network television, executives haven’t been keen on really unabashed strong female characters, they tend to turn them unlikable,” says Mrs. Maisel EP Daniel Palladino who together with his wife, Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of the Emmy-nominated Amazon series, has received the note that if a woman is strong on the page, she has to “suddenly show some sort of vulnerability”.
When Sherman-Palladino and her husband wrote on Roseanne, it was unheard of to get such notes. Roseanne barred network suits from the set and table reads. “When I went on to my next writing job, it was the flipside. From our first table read I had to listen to a bunch of people scribbling nonsense,” she remembers.
Had a regular TV network executive provided a note on the scene in which Joel leaves Midge, they’d have asked why she doesn’t break down in tears. “We talked with Rachel about the way Amy wrote it,” says Palladino. “Midge is feeling something. She’s a very strong woman who is looking at a man doing a very weak, crappy thing. She’s strong in that moment.”
In comedy, timing is everything, and for Mrs. Maisel, the timing of its first season drop on November 29 couldn’t have been more apt. It was 11 months into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, a leader of the free world with a notorious reputation for his objectification of women and sexist and lurid remarks. It was also a matter of weeks following the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations, which fired up the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. And a little more than a month after Amazon Studios’ own president Roy Price was suspended for lewd and repeated propositions to The Man in the High Castle EP Isa Dick Hackett.
With its fairy tale-looking billboards of Brosnahan’s title character donning a fashionable red coat, smiling back at us in a sea of fedora-wearing, trench-coated men, Mrs. Maisel’s marketing appeared to be targeting those Amazon Prime families stuck on the couch after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner. The stars in the Maisel logo itself even indicated something possibly holiday-themed. But upon watching this series—a medley of Mad Men meets Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose—the story about a young uptown Manhattan divorcee making her way as a stand-up in a chauvinistic 1958 spoke more to the #MeToo generation than the Palladinos ever imagined.
In the wake of winning two Golden Globes, for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy and Best Actress for Brosnahan, and most recently garnering 14 Primetime Emmy nominations (63% of Amazon’s total Emmy noms this season), the creators still assert that they never really had a feminist crusader agenda with Mrs. Maisel. “We didn’t want it to feel political, but rather relevant to a young woman today,” insists Sherman-Palladino. “We didn’t want it to feel like, ‘Oh, it’s my grandma’s story’, but that it could be any woman’s story. Then it became time to take the gargantuans down [in the #MeToo movement], and it brought a different view to our show that wasn’t necessarily intended. It worked in an odd way, freakishly and also—boo!—it shows how far we haven’t come since the 1950s.”
For those in showbusiness now, the series echoes close to home—during a later episode in Season 1, Midge’s on-stage takedown of a rival comic, Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch—nominated for Guest Actress), ticks off the latter’s agent (David Paymer). He in turn blackballs Midge from performing at the Gaslight Café, and prevents her manager Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein—nominated for Best Supporting Actress) from doing business around town.
It was a familiar narrative that seemed to have been ripped from the headlines, as a slew of actresses reported their careers had been blackballed after they’d refused Harvey Weinstein’s sexual advances. But it was little surprise to many women. “I can’t speak from personal experience, but people talk about it happening,” says Borstein.
“The show highlights the battles that women have always fought, and are still fighting today,” agrees Brosnahan. “How many times have I’ve been asked while promoting this show, ‘Do you think women are funny?’ It’s one of the many battles we’re still fighting. It’s as relevant as it has ever felt. We’re having these very important moments and talking about things, and hopefully stripping away stigmas—sexual harassment and assault, the mistreatment of women, and the micro and macro violence that women have experienced in this world. This is a movement that was started by women long, long ago.”
Midge isn’t based on any specific stand-up comedienne, but Sherman-Palladino says that she largely drew inspiration from her Catskill comedian father, and spontaneously pitched the idea to Amazon of a housewife who becomes a stand-up comic. “It wasn’t terribly thought out,” says the creator.
What was clear for Brosnahan when she got the pages for her audition was that “from the bottom of page one, it was apparent that Midge was a woman with an unshakeable and constant sense of self-empowerment.” Brosnahan never tried stand-up prior to taking the role, but while she watched stand-ups like Joan Rivers and Jean Carroll, as well as amateur comics, to inform her performance—taking cues from their fashion sense and their feminine tone—she immediately knew who Midge was when reading for the part.
“She shares a lot of qualities with my late grandmother June,” Brosnahan says. “She was around in the 1950s—a wonderful mother and housewife—but my father told me that her fellow debutantes at the time said that she would say whatever she was thinking off the top of her head at the time, and they wished they could do the same. Young ladies were better to be seen and not heard. I certainly drew from my June. She was from Kansas City, Missouri, beautifully spoken, she was divorced, and she worked—all things that were not encouraged.”
Brosnahan’s favorite episode from Season 1 remains its finale, Episode 8, which she submitted to Emmy voters. Midge and Joel rekindle in an organic conversation, but mostly, “Midge comes into her own as Mrs. Maisel in a big, triumphant show at the end. It was cathartic for me personally, and covered a lot of growth.”
Interestingly enough, despite Midge’s trailblazing storyline, Brosnahan doesn’t consider her to be a feminist. In an interview with the New York Times, Brosnahan said that Midge was “a creature of her time… What she is… is curious. She’s insatiable. If she doesn’t know things, she wants to know them. And she doesn’t know the other way than forward.”
It’s something she still believes, though she insists The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a feminist story. “A feminist is active,” Brosnahan clarifies. “It’s about making change and recognizing that the parts of society in which we live are broken, especially in how it relates to women.” She points to a moment in Episode 2, in which Midge expresses her views against secretaries, as evidence of Midge’s old-fashioned bent. “Midge believes that women should get married and have children.”
How a woman holds herself is a big theme on Mrs. Maisel. No more is this apparent than in how the wives—Midge and her mom Rose (Marin Hinkle) specifically—feel the pressure to maintain an appearance that, as women, they go to bed beautiful and wake up magically that way. We see them putting on beauty masks after their husbands fall asleep and taking them off before the men awake.
“Those moments are a little bit too real,” notes Brosnahan, recalling projects that have required her to be expertly made-up for bedroom scenes. “These scenes [on Maisel] are radical in ways that they shouldn’t be any more.”
Midge’s journey is making a turn and “her viewpoint might be changing” toward a slightly more feminist mindset. Though the creators are mum on details about Season 2, we know that there are scenes that take place in Paris, and Deadline has specifically learned that there will be a moment that, natch, takes place in the Catskills, the launchpad for budding wisenheimers of the day.
“Season 1 was about Midge finding her voice as a stand-up, one which she didn’t know she had,” Brosnahan notes. “Season 2 centers around those ripple effects and the major shift that Midge’s life is undergoing. There’s a collision among the separate lives she’s living: those of mother, daughter, housewife, and working woman.”
One of the big scenes unveiled during the summer TCA press tour showed Midge being demoted from the make-up counter at B. Altman, the high-end department store where she works, and sent to the operator call-room. This punishment follows after a Season 1 confrontation in which her husband’s mistress, Penny, embarrasses her in the store over taking Joel back.
Though new Amazon Studios boss Jennifer Salke is eyeing bigger and more mainstream series on the film and TV side, versus the streaming portal’s previous track record for niche demo shows, she promptly gave her vote of confidence to the creators for the future of Mrs. Maisel. Sherman-Palladino says that the streaming service, unlike the big four networks, doesn’t provide notes, rather “thoughts” when providing input on the series, which they leave entirely to the creator’s steering.
“Most people who work for streaming services will have the same experience: It’s not about notes, but a creative conversation, often something along the lines of, ‘We didn’t get this,’ or, ‘Is this too long?’ It’s what every creative conversation should be,” says Sherman-Palladino. “We feel marketing really runs network TV. They sell soap.”
In the Palladinos’ minds, as marketing has become stronger, it has impacted the traditional TV half-hour and hour with more commercial breaks. “As business people, they’re always trying to judge the role of a mother, what it means,” Sherman-Palladino insists. “‘She’s too shrill’ is one note we often received. And by the way, there’s a reason why you’re not seeing The Handmaid’s Tale or Amy Adams’ Sharp Objects on network TV. These streaming companies and cable networks aren’t concerned about selling soap. They want creative voices, and stories that are very specific.”
Also, given that it’s not network, Sherman-Palladino and her husband aren’t faced with the typical stress of ratings. Still, how do they know how popular the show is? “By the amount of girls who go up and hit on Michael Zegen,” laughs Sherman-Palladino. “That’s how we gauge our popularity; he’s our Nielsen.”
Adds her husband, “each girl reps 35K.”