The aptly named The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the story of a woman stumbling on her perfect outlet. At the beginning of the Amazon series, the title character, played by a glowing Rachel Brosnahan, is not necessarily unhappy in what will become the prologue to the rest of her life. In fact, the smartest element of the Amazon drama’s setup is that Miriam “Midge” Maisel, née Weissman, is utterly content to fit the model of the educated, encouraging ’50s Jewish housewife that she embodies at the beginning of the show. Midge graduated from Bryn Mawr after majoring in Russian literature, a subject hefty enough to prove her intelligence, but trivial enough not to threaten her husband Joel (Michael Zegen), whom she married right after graduation. She had two adorable children, with plans for a third by her 30th birthday. And she has always charmed the pants off of everyone around her, from the deli guy to the rabbi to the comedy club booker she plies with brisket, supporting her husband’s pipe dream as faithfully as every other aspect of his life. This is a person who excels at whatever she sets out to do, marriage and motherhood included.
It takes Joel leaving—and for his secretary, no less—to push Midge out of the comfort zone and make the snap decision that changes everything. Drunk and furious, she seizes the Greenwich Village open mic herself instead of dutifully watching while her husband plagiarizes someone more talented. Sloppily, impulsively, a comedy star is born.
Likable, lucky, and impossibly skilled at whatever she tries, there’s a dash of wish fulfillment to Midge, for viewer and writer alike. But all that whimsy and joy doesn’t mean Mrs. Maisel is devoid of real heft. The conflicts between Midge and her parents—math professor Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and housewife Rose (Marin Hinkle), having a harder time dealing with the split and its ensuing upheavals than Midge is—have all the intensity of the best knock-down-drag-outs between Gilmore Girls’ Emily and Lorelai. Better yet, the show checks its own excesses, as when manager Susie (Alex Borstein) pushes Midge to cut the naive bullshit and really commit to honing her craft. Everything has a magical way of working out for Midge, at least until it doesn’t. Mrs. Maisel knows the first part of that sentence makes for a good show, and the second for a great one.
Like all Amy Sherman-Palladino characters, Midge is at least partly a showrunner surrogate. The titular Gilmore Girls were pop culture obsessives who prized intellectual companionship; Bunheads’ Michelle Simms was a fellow former dancer. Like her predecessors, Midge talks in the unmistakable voice of her creator, a polished and caffeinated repartee that sounds like listening to an audiobook perpetually set to double speed. In addition, she’s a woman pursuing an unconventional life path in a male-dominated profession, with comedy substituting for television writing and impeccable lipstick for an iconic hat wardrobe. She’s even inspired by Sherman-Palladino family history: Amy’s father, Don Sherman, who died in 2012, was a performer who worked in the same Lenny Bruce–era milieu before relocating to Los Angeles.
Ultimately, Mrs. Maisel isn’t a story about the mechanics or world of stand-up, and thank God for that; the world has long since internalized those lessons from a dozen other shows. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about the self-actualization that comes with finding your voice and a means to share it at the same time. I get the sense Sherman-Palladino can relate. Maisel’s mastermind may have locked down her voice long ago, but the show feels like a new phase that allows her to share it on a bigger and more accommodating stage than ever before. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a coming-out party for Amy Sherman-Palladino in the age of streaming, and it is glorious to watch.
Part of the surprise in Sherman-Palladino’s second act is that, like Midge, she’s already enjoyed an objectively triumphant first one. After stints in sitcom writers’ rooms like Roseanne, where she worked with her husband and creative partner Daniel Palladino, Sherman-Palladino achieved what most TV writers can only dream of: a critical and commercial success in Gilmore Girls, a series that earned its beloved cult classic status without having to pay the price of an abbreviated initial run. While it never had blockbuster ratings, the WB drama earned enough of an audience to continue for a syndication-worthy seven seasons. Still, as the beloved Bunheads’ short run on ABC Family went to show, Sherman-Palladino’s sensibility—reference-heavy, rapid-fire, and restless—was too particular to make for a surefire hit on a medium that demands populist appeal.
Technically, Maisel isn’t even Sherman-Palladino’s first effort on behalf of a tech company with seemingly unlimited funds. Netflix footed the bill for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, including stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel’s $750,000-an-episode salary. But the postscript to the original series, written and directed entirely by Sherman-Palladino and Palladino, never escaped the uncanny valley between the nostalgia object it was reviving and the contemporary television landscape it was entering into. In contrast, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel feels possible only at an Amazon-type enterprise, one whose need to make a splash neatly complements Sherman-Palladino’s impulse to stretch beyond the confines of ad-supported television. Maisel starts from a more ambitious premise than any Sherman-Palladino show before it; as a period piece set in the late 1950s, the costume and production design alone demand a budget equivalent to Lorelai and Rory’s combined lifetime coffee expenditures. To pull it off, the show needed a benefactor willing to spend big and, relative to an established prestige arbiter like HBO, take some risks.
As a viewing experience, Maisel doesn’t feel like a risk at all. Sherman-Palladino’s style, already reminiscent of old-school screwball comedies, is an instant and natural fit for Maisel’s vintage setting; similarly, the small-town eccentrics who populated Paradise and Stars Hollow alike are here recast as denizens of show business, a more realistic petri dish of weirdos than a white-bread Connecticut hamlet. (Thanks to all that Amazon cash, the caliber of bit player is significantly higher, too: National treasure Wallace Shawn shows up as a hack comedy writer peddling jokes out of a booth at the Stage Deli; Jane Lynch plays a foul-mouthed Queens comic who’s secretly a snooty Yale Drama grad.) Watching characters lob fully-formed zingers at one another while the camera practically pirouettes around them, one gets the comforting feeling of being in expert hands. Mrs. Maisel just knows how to be funny; even when she’s temporarily quit stand-up, she can’t help herself from making Upper West Side dinner parties her captive audience. It’s in her blood, just like how Amy Sherman-Palladino knows how to write a damn delightful episode of TV. The muscle at her disposal might be different, but the chops were already there.
Of course, as Midge learns when her beginner’s luck starts to run out around Episode 5, those chops are hard-won. At a time when TV is filled with seemingly out-of-nowhere sensations like Girls or Stranger Things, we often forget that the first wave of Golden Age TV shows came from showrunners who’d spent years on time-constrained, quick-turnaround, cost-limited network series like Hill Street Blues (David Milch) or The X-Files (Vince Gilligan). By the time these men, and they almost entirely were men, got the freedom that came with no profanity censors, often no commercials, and no rigid template to confine themselves within, they knew exactly what to do with it. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a vision of what that freedom can look like when given to not just any female showrunner, but this female showrunner. In an industry obsessed with novelty, youth, and the next big thing, this show is a paean to experience—to letting a proven expert do what she does best.