The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Is Intimate, Screwball and Transgressive All at Once –

The first thing you observe on Rachel Brosnahan’s Twitter page is a picture of Elisabeth Moss as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson. It’s not just any picture of Peggy: It’s Peggy in cool dark shades, a cigarette dangling from her lip, and carrying something—a mock-up for an ad campaign? (in fact, it’s Roger’s illustration of “an octopus pleasuring a lady”)—in such a way that it looks like she’s slinging a gun.

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“It’s just one of the most badass pictures that I’ve seen of her. Like, fuck the world,” says Brosnahan, the 27-year-old actress you may know as the prostitute Rachel on House of Cards. Brosnahan is currently killing it as Miriam “Midge” Maisel; she’s the star of writer-director Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new series streaming on Amazon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Amazon liked what it saw in the pilot so much that the studio ordered two full seasons. (This never happens, by the way.)

The show is both intimate and big, screwball and transgressive. That it succeeds on all levels is a testament to Sherman-Palladino’s immense talents, and those of her husband, Daniel Palladino; the show’s writers; and the cast. And let’s not forget the crew, many of whom were Vinyl alums, “a bunch of brilliant, creatively minded people who were suddenly wandering the streets of New York…when HBO, thank God, decided to do the angelof-death thing” and cancel that 2016 series, Sherman-Palladino says with grateful glee.

Mrs. Maisel is set in roughly the same period as Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men (it launches in 1958; Mad Men spanned the 1960s) and comes to us at a time in the culture when we are thinking hard about sex and the sexes, the power that women have and don’t have, and, frankly, the revenge—and remediation—we seek. It starts out like a Vincente Minnelli Technicolor dream—the colors of the sets and wardrobes are a sorbet palette. The opening wedding scene is basically a musical number, minus the music. But quickly the show becomes about Midge’s big, juicy ambition. And yes, revenge. Because Midge aced the Upper West Side Jewish Girl Playbook and still gets screwed, and she is pissed. In significant ways, this series is a major departure for Sherman-Palladino, whose Gilmore Girls and Bunheads were essentially comedies about women’s interior lives and were at times even quaint.

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Gilmore Girls

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Adam Taylor/ABC Family/Getty Images

For instance, no f-word was lobbed in those WB and ABC Family shows, but Brosnahan deploys it early and often in Mrs. Maisel. As does Sherman-Palladino, Midge’s creator, as she sits in her baroque/safari/French-cancan-girl–themed office in Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios. “I wanted a girl who felt like, ‘My life is absolutely fucking perfect. I scored! I got the husband, I got the apartment, my kids are not weird looking, the butcher talks to me first, I’m the biggest fish in this six-block radius of my life,’” Sherman-Palladino says. “And suddenly a complete and total rug is pulled out from under her.”

If you’ve seen the show (all eight episodes of the first season are on Amazon Prime), you know that Midge’s husband leaves her, and through a series of rapid-fire events, some of them drunken, some of them stone-cold sober, she decides to become a stand-up comedian. (Joan Rivers, Sherman-Palladino says, was an inspiration for Midge.) “I didn’t want to write one more fucking character who is staring out the window hopped up on happy pills while the roast is in the oven, wondering if there was something better out there: ‘I’m putting on this big show, but I’m crying on the inside,’” she says.

While Sherman-Palladino is not making an overt reference to Betty Draper, the comparison is obvious. But Midge and her manager, Susie (played by Alex Borstein), are multifaceted, as were the guys in Mad Men. No matter how much you loved that show, you cannot assert that, aside from Peggy and Sally, its female characters were written as deeply. Ditto the shows created by Aaron Sorkin, who is a rapid-fire-dialogue fellow traveler of Sherman-Palladino’s when it comes to the smarty-pants cultural and political references both of them employ to delightful effect. But Sorkin never really fully realized the characters played by Emily Mortimer, Alison Pill, or Olivia Munn in The Newsroom.

Sherman-Palladino, who gave us Lorelai Gilmore (and Emily and Rory Gilmore, and Melissa McCarthy as the mad-genius chef Sookie), writes shows that are primarily, gloriously about the women. Midge Maisel is confident, competent, highly intelligent, underestimated, and roiling. In her new life, she wants to compete in a way that we, even now, label as masculine. The scene where Susie takes her to the Copacabana to watch Red Skelton perform his act, and kill while doing it, you see Midge’s eyes narrow: She wants that. She wants the fame. “One of the biggest notes that we had to give all the actresses who auditioned is, ‘You cannot cry during the marriage-breakup scene. Midge gets mad,’” Sherman-Palladino says. And she doesn’t really give a damn who or what she has to upend—her estranged husband, her kids—to achieve that success.

Brosnahan and Sherman-Palladino on the set of Mrs. Maisel.

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So it’s interesting to hear the show’s creator expound on her belief that “this is a character that networks would not find interesting.” She’s saying this by way of praising Amazon for embracing the pilot and paying the big bucks to shoot it in New York, rather than on a studio lot in L.A. “To their great credit, they said, ‘Tell us what it will cost. We’ll sit down. We’ll all take a Valium.’”

Anyway, she continues, “the networks are still solely focused on women in a certain way. If you’re a tough girl on a network, it’s because they put a gun in your hand. But you’re still running around in leggings and high-heeled boots and—there was one of these shows where the world exploded and the FBI woman is running around like she just walked out of a Marc Jacobs ad, and I’m like, ‘That right there is the problem with the networks.’ Because this woman would not fucking be wearing leggings. She just wouldn’t do it. I’m sorry if that’s what you think is hot.”

One of the plot points that’s marvelous about Mrs. Maisel is Midge’s un-sitcom-like relationship with the transformative comic Lenny Bruce, who’s played sexily by Luke Kirby. He and Brosnahan have amazing chemistry, but, says Sherman-Palladino, “I like that he looks at her not like a piece of ass. He looks at her as an interesting human being.” Bruce, who was infamous in the ’60s for his stream-of-consciousness, profane, political comedy—he’s a forebear to Richard Pryor and George Carlin, to John Belushi, Howard Stern, and Jon Stewart—was friends with Joan Rivers, who worked and suffered a long time in a very macho business before she made it. “I read somewhere that she had a note from Bruce on a night when she bombed,” Sherman-Palladino says, “and he said, ‘You’re right, they’re wrong.’”

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Jen Kirkman, one of the comedians (Chelsea Lately; the Funny Or Die series Drunk History) who helped write the scripts and the stand-up routines that Midge performs in the first season of Mrs. Maisel, says that one of the most fun requirements of her job was writing the scenes where Midge bombs. Brosnahan, who’d never done a comedy before (her agent called Sherman-Palladino and said, “You just have to trust me on this”), loved it, too. To prepare for the role, she went to see stand-up comedians—not the famous ones, but “the amateur, two-drink-minimum night” gigs. “Those were really interesting. You watch people bomb in the most intensely vulnerable ways,” the actress says. “It’s been horrifying. It’s thrilling, by the same token. It’s a dream that I didn’t know I had. I wanted to do things that freaked me out.”

“We got so excited to write a crappy standup bit for Midge,” Kirkman says. “In comedy, you usually do well the first couple of times—there’s some kind of magic—and then you start bombing.”

Kirkman, who sold a show to ABC last fall called The Mighty Quinn, about a woman (played by Kirkman) whose boyfriend dumps her on Christmas Day, is in awe of Sherman-Palladino’s comedy chops. “Amy totally knows the world of stand-up,” she says. And it’s true: Sherman-Palladino’s father was Don Sherman, a writer, actor, and stand-up who died in 2012. He invited lots of comedians over for barbecues in what she calls “the beige box” that is the San Fernando Valley, where she was raised.

“The thing about comics—and again, I say this as someone who has never done standup but has grown up around stand-ups—is if you’re going to make it as a comic, there is a brutal, take-no-prisoners streak in you. It’s lonely. There’s no one else to blame. It’s just you and a spotlight and a microphone, and if they fucking hate you, they hate you. It’s probably the toughest of all the art forms.”

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Tough, too, is writing a comedy about comedy: Talk about performance anxiety. Kirkman recalls that when “the writers had writer’s block and there was a silence in the room, I’d say, ‘How about, Lenny Bruce comes in and dies.…’” The joke is that Bruce died of a drug overdose in 1966. So much for a romance between him and Midge.…

Well, says Sherman-Palladino, “he doesn’t die for a few years. So we could potentially get canceled before Lenny Bruce dies. We hope to get canceled before Lenny Bruce dies.”

This article originally appears in the February 2018 issue of ELLE.


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