“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” Midge is “confident, energetic and coifed,” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino says, but those expecting her to be a feminist force in the ’50s may be sorely disappointed.
The new series from the creators of “Gilmore Girls” initially sees Midge, played by “House of Cards” actress Rachel Brosnahan, live the life of a typical housewife on the Upper West Side — her afternoons spent whipping up the perfect brisket in her apartment and caring for the children — until it’s all pulled out from under her.
“There are inspiring projects about women who came out of the womb wanting to change things, who came out of the womb feeling like they didn’t belong and break through some kind of ceiling … this is not like that,” Brosnahan says. “This is a woman who is not a feminist beginning to ask questions about her place in the world.”
Brosnahan’s character embarks on a journey to break into the male-dominated downtown world of stand-up comedy after her husband (Michael Zegen) leaves her.
Sure, she’s an audacious, fearless female figure who stands out next to her reserved UWS companions, but she’s not a powerhouse out to break the norm from the start.
Finding her voice
When we first meet her, she’s fussing over her appearance, commenting on the size and shape of her baby’s head and waking up in the middle of the night to curl her hair and freshen up her makeup. It isn’t until she finds herself a divorcee that she downs a bottle of red wine and takes to the stage at the old Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street that she conjures the courage to chase a dream of her own.
But that sneaky sense of empowerment is exactly what the Palladino team was going for.
“There have been very good movies where women in the ’50s are portrayed as being very repressed and staring out the window thinking, ‘I wish there was something more than this out there.’ We wanted to come at it from a different point of view,” Sherman-Palladino says. “We wanted to portray a woman who actually loves her life. She loves her apartment, her clothes and looking adorable for her husband. She really thinks she’s scored … and then it blows up.”
The spark for change is ignited in Midge after she’s exposed firsthand to the limits placed on women in her society. A crucial scene in the pilot episode shows the impromptu stand-up comic rushed off the stage by police after exposing her breasts and using profanity publicly.
“It’s baptism by fire for Midge. She’s going to learn there are rules that she’s broken, rules she didn’t even know where there,” Sherman-Palladino says.
A powerful duo
Those itching for a feminist force may instead find what they’re looking for in Midge’s secondhand woman, Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein). The Gaslight booker, who sports gray pantsuits, vests and suspenders, represents a woman who truly breaks against the gender expectations of the decade.
“Alex plays a woman who knows she doesn’t belong in a woman’s body, in a woman’s world. She was never cut out to get married and have children, so there’s no happiness for her,” Sherman-Palladino says, explaining that it isn’t until she teams up with Midge that she finds a purpose to her downtown life.
Susie — who initially finds Midge’s colorful personality an annoyance — takes on the role of Midge’s booker, aiming to help her new career take off.
“Their coming together unlocks both of their ambition. For Susie, she kept it all down. For Midge, she didn’t even know she had ambition,” Sherman-Palladino says. “When they come together, they’re both striving toward something.”
A loosely-based concept
Though the concept for the series is based loosely on the career path of Joan Rivers, who also got her start at the Gaslight Cafe, Sherman-Palladino says the idea for the rest of the script came from her own life.
“My father was a comic , so I was raised with stand-up comics sitting around our house between gigs eating deli and talking about the Catskills and Greenwich Village basket houses,” she says. “To a girl sitting in the San Fernando Valley, which is just 200 miles of different shades of brown, the idea of this vivacity and a bohemian world was so intriguing to me.”
Adding that she “always had the idea in the back of her brain,” she says the team at Amazon helped evolve a dream idea into a series. Sherman-Palladino and her husband have now signed a four-year production deal with the streaming service.
Based on Rivers or not, Brosnahan says she found inspiration for the role by watching old stand-up tapes of Rivers, Jean Carroll and other female comedians.
“I don’t think Midge can really be inspired by Joan Rivers because they’re so different, but I certainly looked at her comedy for the part. I found the earliest female stand-up material that I could,” she adds.
‘Gilmore Girls’ fans welcome
Dan Palladino says the team’s latest series falls into the same dramedy space they love, but it “really can’t be categorized.” Either way, with Midge, a fast-talking, independent character in the leading role, “Gilmore Girls” fans are sure to be easily drawn in.
“‘Maisel’ has enough of the same sort of energy and vibrancy and dynamic that I think will transfer over [from ‘Gilmore’] and yet, it’s a completely different show so, it won’t feel like you’re just watching ‘Gilmore Girls’ again and, where’s Lauren Graham?” Sherman-Palladino adds.
The Palladino duo has one thing to say to fans who aren’t yet sure if this new endeavor is for them: “Come on, have we led you astray before?”