‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Creators on Midge, Joel and Making Peak TV
Despite being set in the 1950s, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel feels distinctly tethered to our current moment. The Amazon series, about a young mother who stumbles into the New York City comedy scene as her marriage is falling apart, features a female protagonist who’s fearless, opinionated and boldly crashing a party she wasn’t invited to. As brought to life by the effervescent Rachel Brosnahan, Midge Maisel is every woman’s ideal avatar: self-possessed, uncompromisingly smart, unabashedly feminine, inexorable. (Oh, and funny.)
It may be too simplistic an analysis to say that Midge is also an analogue of her creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, but their similarities are difficult to dismiss. As co-creator, along with her husband Daniel Palladino, of Gilmore Girls, Sherman-Palladino emerged as a singular TV voice in the early 2000s, a devoted fan base swarming to her rapid-fire dialogue weaponized with wit and pop culture references. (You could watch TV blindfolded and still recognize a show written by the Palladinos.) Gilmore Girls ran for seven seasons, from 2000 to 2007 (and picked up post-finale steam thanks to streaming views, leading to a miniseries epilogue of sorts made for Netflix in 2016), but success did little to mute the industry scuttlebutt that Sherman-Palladino was “difficult,” “abrasive” and any other pejorative typically thrown at a woman in charge. A decade later, Mrs. Maisel has been rapturously received, seemingly with little of the attendant backlash Sherman-Palladino faced in years past.
As filming for Season Two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel got underway in the weeks leading up to the Emmys (the show already won Creative Arts Emmys on September 8th for casting, editing and music supervision), Rolling Stone sat down with the Palladinos at their Brooklyn office at Steiner Studios — decor appropriately Midcentury modern, Sherman-Palladino sporting her sartorial trademark hat — to discuss the genesis of their current hero, where her story is headed and how the process of making auteur-driven TV has changed.
Midge has an internal confidence that seems a little anachronistic. She appears to be completely unaware that she’s not supposed to be on stage at Greenwich Village comedy clubs, or really anywhere, in the Fifties.
Amy Sherman-Palladino: Yeah, she’s her own girl. I mean, Midge is somebody whose whole world was six blocks. Y’know, her butcher was here, her bakery was here, her family was here, her park was here, her friends were here — and she was queen of the six blocks. So, weirdly, as much as she was raised in a very sheltered atmosphere, she actually didn’t really know she was sheltered or that she wasn’t supposed to do or say things. Within her world, it was like, “That Midge, she’s adorable.” It’s not until she goes out into the world that she starts realizing, you’re not supposed to say that, you’re not supposed to be here. And at that point, she’s already Midge. She already feels entitled to be everywhere. So it’s more of the reverse 1950s-woman story. A lot of times, it’s the woman very aware of the cage and wanting to break out; this is a woman that didn’t know there was a cage until she started down this other path and then realized, “Oh, that’s a wall.” And at that point, she’s already like, “Well, that’s gonna have to go, because clearly I’m not just gonna sit here. I mean, I’m Midge.”
She does measure her waist, thighs and ankles every day. That feels like something of a cage.
ASP: Yeah, but what we love about Midge is that she doesn’t view her world as restrictive. She feels better when her lipstick is on. And if that’s just the way she was raised, then that’s the way she was raised. But she is a woman who’s very proud of who she is and what she is. Her battle is, “I don’t want to go out on stage and pretend not to be this. I want to wear my cute clothes, and I want my hair done right, and I want this makeup looking right, because I’m Midge. I got my little waist and my high heels and my purse — that is who I am, and I’m not gonna pretend to be something that I’m not.” And we always talk about when Midge is old and gray — and still thin and cute, but 100 — that she’ll have money and experiences and riches and travels, but she can also have that moment of the happiest she ever was, when she was making that brisket for Joel. That’s when life is easy and warm and enveloping and fun, not lonely and pressure-filled. That was maybe pure ignorance, but that was the happiest time of her life. And we want her to keep that with her so that her journey is that constant pull between the ambition that’s discovered, the voice that is developing, and that other world right out there. Because she could easily go back. She could easily find some nice lawyer walking down the street in about 10 minutes to make her an honest woman again. And it’s that pull [between] the dream that she thought she wanted and this searing ambition that’s come to light in her. That’s gonna be there for the rest of this series.
Why did you set the show in the comedy world instead of just having Midge come into her own in a more typical setting, in some office job?
ASP: The idea of doing something period, having a bigger scope, was interesting to us, because, y’know, as much as we love Gilmore Girls — and I’d wade through any sort of alligator-infested waters to work with Lauren Graham again — it was a show where we had no money, we had no scope. We walked them around Burbank, we walked them around Burbank the other way, and then we all went home.
Daniel Palladino: That’s the secret. Clockwise on Tuesday, counterclockwise on Wednesday.
ASP: Turn the other way. So the idea of having a bigger world to build and being a little more cinematic — there was something romantic about the Greenwich Village scene of the Fifties. It was very artsy and political, and it felt, to me, very vibrant and like all the interesting people were there. Everybody there was smart and wore black clothes, and they read books and knew politics and marched. It just sounded like the place to be and, because of that, it just seemed like someone like Midge — who, though she lived in New York, that was not her scene — could view that scene kind of the way I viewed it from California, which is like, “Whoa, that’s where all the crazy people hang out; I hope I could be there.” So as she enters it, we let the audience enter it with her and experience it as she would.
DP: Also, her entrance into comedy is accompanied by Susie, played by Alex Bornstein, which becomes our sort of buddy comedy. So we can do scene after scene after scene of two women having discussions that pass the Bechdel Test. The only time they ever talk about men, it’s Susie talking about how much she detests her ex-husband and doesn’t want him around. Other than that, it’s two women, a very unlikely partnership, who are each stuck in their own kind of grooves. Midge was on a path that she always thought was the only path she could take, and she discovers that there’s other paths out there for her. And Susie is a little more mysterious. She’s a woman who basically at some point shut down in her twenties, and even we don’t quite know why —
ASP: Well, I don’t think we don’t know totally. Susie is somebody who, again, did not fit the times. She was not a beauty. Where did Susie fit in with the kind of clothing that she wears and the views that she has? And the difference between Midge and Susie is: Midge has no idea that there are no boundaries for her. Susie is incredibly aware of every single boundary that has been put up. And suddenly this Tinkerbell comes flying into her life, and she realizes: If I can harness that, I could have a shot at having some sort of life that isn’t me fucking dying at this, at the Gaslight, making a cup of coffee. So it’s that dynamic between two women who are acutely women in their times in very different fashions. Susie’s life is never gonna be find a husband, have some kids — that’s just simply not an option. And once you take that option off the table in 1959, women were left with a lot less choices. She doesn’t come from money. It’s not like she’s, “Well, I’m gonna go live in France.” With what? She has no money, no support system, and suddenly [there’s] one person and friend — even though she’s still, deep into Season Two, “We’re not friends!” It’s so hard for her to let herself even acknowledge how important Midge is to her, because if Midge goes away, then Susie goes away. As much as the show is about Midge and her life, it’s a buddy comedy. And the scenes between the two of them have become incredibly important.
Despite how much the show leans on those two women, it doesn’t feel effortful, like you’re straining to construct something timely. Why do you think it feels so contemporary even though it’s so grounded in a bygone era?
ASP: I think it’s depth. The world changes so fast. Who knew that while we were doing press in London, Harvey Weinstein is finally gonna be outed as the gargantuan creep that he is? That was the “come to Jesus” moment for everybody. So… I don’t believe you go into any project with a shot in hell of succeeding if you have a specific zeitgeist desire. It just can’t work. You have to fall in love with your story and what you want to tell people, and live in a world that you’re gonna enjoy for a while, and hope to drag some people along with you.
DP: Yeah, the best way to tap into those things is accidentally. And we got that from the very beginning. Once the series came out, everybody was reading into it. And while it wasn’t at all what we intended, it’s like, if people take from that, then good. They’re reading into very strong women characters. Even this year [Midge’s mother] Rose starts stepping up, because she also is in a role that was expected of a woman of her time, and we’re finding out more and more that that’s not all that she wanted in life. So, we still get the “MeToo” things, and we deny that we intended to do it, but we don’t deny that those issues are dealt with, because this woman is in this world and is dealing with a lot of the issues. And I think if you pay attention to the characters and their motivations and their psychology and all that stuff, people are going to read into it these universal things. That’s our ultimate goal, to get people to read into it what they want to read into it. Make it their own.
ASP: One of the things we did want to do that had nothing to do with a political message or what’s going on in the world was, we needed Midge to feel energetic and youthful and not like, “I’m watching my grandma walk around, and everything smells like schmaltz.” We wanted young girls to be able to watch Midge and find her as fascinating as their grandmothers would. We didn’t want to make a sepia-toned Hallmark card. We wanted her to be a vibrant heroine of today. And because of that, the issues that she deals with are issues that women deal with: love, marriage, betrayal, family, success in life. How ambitious should I be? How ambitious is attractive? Do I care? Was I meant to be a mother? I’m a mother, what the fuck do I do now? Those issues are issues whether you’re alive today or [in] 1950.
Speaking of, earlier in your career you faced a lot of negative labeling, like “Oh, she’s challenging— ”
ASP: Well, yes I did [laughs].
There hasn’t been any of that around this show. Why do you think that is? Is it because Amazon lets you do whatever you want? Is it because we’re in a time where people don’t care anymore, where women can be in charge and not automatically be labeled a bitch? Is it that the show is such a success?
DP: I think a little bit of all of that.
ASP: Yeah, it’s a hodgepodge. Look, at this point when I walk in the room, they’re gonna be like, “Ugh, the hat, I get it”… y’know, “We know, with the words and the blah.” So it would be naive of them at this point to go, “She’s gonna be so great.” That ship’s sailed. But I think also a great deal is that shift in the landscape of television and being able to be at a place like Amazon or Netflix. I don’t think places like that can afford to be as dickish as the other places. They can be quietly dickish if they wanna be, but their jobs are to eat ABC’s lunch. They saw a wasteland of, like, every show is kind of the same, and they were like, “We could do something different. There’s more stories out there than are being told.” And I think just by having that be the mandate, suddenly the “difficult” become more, “Oh, wait a minute, they’re not difficult, they just have a different way of thinking and doing stuff.”
DP: When we first started in TV, sitcom structure was very, very rigid. Basically, the networks had a formula and if you stepped outside of that to try to tell the story in a different way, the network structure was there to pound all that stuff back in. They wanted everything to be TGIFridays. Then, if someone like Amy comes around, and says, “I wanna do an hour-long comedy” — Gilmore Girls, people were saying it should be a half-hour. There were a lot of battles like that. And we would have battles about episodes that they hated that became some of the most beloved episodes.
And quite frankly, guys also got pounded. But unfortunately, honestly, when women get pounded, it becomes, “She’s difficult; she’s crazy; she wears a hat.” For me, it was probably, “He’s a dick, he’s difficult.”
ASP: So we found each other [laughs]!
DP: But cable and the streaming outlets don’t have any preset formula of how you should behave. So people who have new ideas, it’s like, “Cool, let’s try it.” You go to Amazon, they don’t want to hear the next CSI, they actually want to hear a variety of things. And they decide through probably algorithms [laughs]. Y’know, like they ask Alexa, “Alexa, is Amy Palladino still difficult?”
ASP: [Laughs] “Yeah, she is!”
“And fuck you!”
I don’t think it was success though, because after Gilmore Girls, I wrote a couple of scripts that I really loved, and I still got, “Look we just don’t think it’s gonna work.” And I’m like, “OK, I literally I proved that it can work if it’s done properly, because we literally just did it.” I’m not even saying, look at someone else’s show, I could do that; I’m saying look at my show. Look at my hats, I have a hat room! I have a whole room for my hats that I bought off that show!
DP: Security is usually escorting her out of the building at this point.
ASP: What I’ve never understood with notes is, if you see something so clearly, it’s not pretentious to go, “Midge wouldn’t say that.” Like, she just fucking wouldn’t say that. If someone comes to you and says, “Well, do it this way,” it’s not being a dick to say, “Well, I don’t wanna do it that way.” It’s literally like, “The journey is this way. So you’re telling me to write something I don’t see.” And writing is not like millwork. It’s not like putting a car together, where you know if you put the wheel on the thing, eventually it’ll go. It’s a different thing. You have to see it, otherwise you can’t do it.
Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino answer questions during the 2018 TCA Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Todd Williamson/January Images/REX Shutterstock
So what do you see for Midge? Do you have an arc where you know what her endpoint ultimately is?
ASP: We have a general idea. It’s not as clear as Gilmore — which, I knew the last four words from day one — but we have a trajectory. What we know less is how long we’re gonna take her to get there. As wonderful as the structure of 10 episodes is, we are finding ourselves sometimes desiring more time.
Is she going to end up with Joel? Do you guys like Joel?
ASP: Oh, I love him. Mad about him.
DP: Obviously Joel is a very flawed person.
ASP: That’s what I like about him.
DP: He’s our incredibly weak person who through a big mistake is going to gain some strength.
ASP: Sometimes people who have the biggest journey to take are the most interesting characters in the end. What I don’t like about a lot of shows that center on woman is, they tend to make the men universal villains. Like they have to be a little douche-y, or they have allergies, or they eat tuna fish all the time, or they’re kind of geeky, or they’re such dogs that like, he’ll have his dick in someone and be like, “I don’t, what are you talking about, honey?”
We wanted to make sure that Joel was a flawed man of his time. Y’know, men in the Fifties had their own sort of line to toe. They [had] things they were supposed to do and ways they were supposed to act. And this is a guy who thought he would break free from his father and that would solve it, and that didn’t happen. He thought, “I’m gonna have this great dream” [to become a stand-up comic], and that didn’t happen. He’s a guy searching. And he made a big fucking mistake, and he’s gonna spend the rest of his life beating the shit out of himself for that mistake. He’s also the first person outside of Susie to see [Midge] and understand exactly what she is and how good she is. I will always love him for that.
Because I think he knew what she was subconsciously when he picked her. Y’know, he picked the loudest broad in the room. There were plenty of cutie pies in the corner who could make a fucking brisket who would shut their mouths and wouldn’t want to take the microphone at their own wedding. There was just something that just drew him to the most special person out there, not just because she was a hot chick. Because hot chicks with big mouths sometimes become a lot less hot, especially in the Fifties. He was drawn to her bravado and her energy and her mind and her humor and her wit, and it’s the very thing that undid them. And I think that there’s something really interesting about that. He’s with us for life. There was never five seconds where we thought, “We could just get rid of Joel and bring in more men.” He’s amazing. And he was the catalyst for her to find this voice. Without him being a dick, she never would’ve found this thing inside of her. So, many years from now, she can say thank you [laughs].
Why does Midge never fall apart, with all the turmoil in her life?
ASP: I feel like I see women falling apart on TV all the fucking time. I just want some woman to keep her shit together.
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