How ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Became Amazon’s ‘Game of Thrones’
The cast and creators of Amazon’s heralded series on why the story of a ‘50s New York housewife breaking out in comedy deserves its massive budget, epic scale, and your attention.
Married showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino still remember when they had to fight for snow.
The fast-talking team behind The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are themselves marveling at the scale of their critically exalted Amazon comedy series. They have the budget to do things like recreate 1959 Manhattan in the middle of the day on a busy Chelsea street, or whisk the entire production to Paris, which they do in the upcoming season two. It’s unbelievable after so many years, as Palladino says, “of two girls walking around a backlot in Burbank.”
He’s referring to Gilmore Girls, the WB drama the couple created and over which they famously battled the network which refused to give them a proper budget for a dialogue-heavy show centered around the close relationship between a mother and daughter.
“I remember when we were trying to fight for snow on Gilmore Girls and we were having to use the crazy argument of: They live in Connecticut. It’s gonna snow in Connecticut,” Sherman-Palladino says. “The argument was ‘The whole show is just those two faces talking.’ I remember thinking: Well, they talk in the snow in Connecticut…”
Now if the Palladinos ask for snow, Amazon might just fund them a blizzard.
When we meet, the couple and the cast of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are basking in their Emmys glow, with 14 nominations including Best Comedy Series and Best Actress in a Comedy Series for Mrs. Maisel herself, Rachel Brosnahan. The series won in both those categories at the Golden Globes, and all the adulation is putting a Midge-esque pep in their steps despite flying into Los Angeles directly from the show’s New York set for a victory-lap press day.
The series introduces us to Midge Maisel, played by Brosnahan, an Upper East Side housewife as prim and perfect as if she had stepped out of a 1959 Life magazine ad. She couldn’t be happier, married to a great husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), and raising her kids in the same apartment building as her endearingly overbearing Jewish parents, Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose (Marin Hinkle).
But then a bomb shatters her gilded cage: Joel cheats on her and leaves her for his secretary. In a manic rage, Midge finds herself at a downtown comedy club, drunk and suddenly at the mic stand, performing a set railing against her husband—and killing it. She catches the eye of an aspiring manager (Alex Borstein), and soon, as she’s picking up the pieces of her life, she embarks on an unlikely comedy career.
The Palladinos’ scripts feature the same whiplash-inducing dialogue and wry sense of humor that they became known for with Gilmore Girls but, unlike Stars Hollow, Midge’s world is shot with blockbuster-like scope. One-shots tracking Midge through department stores, Washington Square Park, or on stage at the comedy club have a Golden Age, MGM-like grandeur to them.
Premiering on Amazon just as Trump was finishing his first year in office and against the backdrop of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movement, the show was also celebrated for its timeliness: girl wronged by a man strikes out on her own in a male-dominated entertainment field.
All of this partly explain the show’s rapturous reception. But hear me out: I think it’s because, with Mrs. Maisel, Amazon has finally found its own Game of Thrones.
It’s not just because the series could earn Amazon its first Thrones-style sweep of Emmy categories. Maisel boasts strong odds to win Series, Actress (Brosnahan), Supporting Actress (Borstein), Supporting Actor (Shalhoub), Writing, Directing, Guest Actress (Jane Lynch), and several technical categories.
Maisel may center on the story of a housewife with chutzpah aspiring to be a comedian, but that in itself—an ordinary person realizing their extraordinary potential—is an epic story. Amazon recognized the spellbinding potential in the vibrancy of the Palladinos’ technicolor 1959 Manhattan world, and gave the creators the budget to make that world one, like Westeros, worth escaping to and obsessing over.
Also, both shows prominently feature fabulous coats.
There’s an undercurrent of misogyny in the rationale Sherman-Palladino was given for why there was no budget for snow in Gilmore Girls. It’s that stories about women, stories that thrive on rich, complex dialogue, aren’t worth the money. Midge Maisel proves why they are.
The feeling first really hit the Palladinos on 19th Street.
It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday in Manhattan, and the entire street had been shut down to transform it into the 1959 version of the Garment District. There were hundreds of extras in period clothing. Hundreds of period trucks, cars, and props. Period façades were going up to date the buildings. Oh, and the scene they were shooting was a one-take tracking shot that required a lot of rehearsal and a lot of time. Read: a lot of money.
“That was one of the first times Dan and I stood there and thought, ‘Why are they letting us do this?’” Sherman-Palladino says. They had been so used to being told no. Now all the pieces were fitting together and they could actually go big or go home—and they had no plans to go home. Their storytelling deserved it all.
“Our stuff is deceptive on paper,” Sherman-Palladino says. “You have to dig through it.”
That’s what they told Amazon when they pitched the series: read the script. When it says Midge is going to be walking through the park, it’s not going to be a tight shot of her face next to a tree. She’s going to be walking through Washington Square Park, and we’re going to see the park and the people and, most importantly, the vibrancy. “We’re showing this woman fighting one world versus another,” she says. “You’ve got to show the world.”
She goes back to the Gilmore Girls snow fight.
“It was very weird that argument, because if you don’t write superheroes and you don’t write dragons and Khaleesi and gunshots and cops running and things blowing up, people think it’s small,” she says. “But there’s literally nothing bigger than trying to transform today’s Manhattan in 1959 Manhattan. Unless you stay inside, and it’s a lot of people talking in rooms, or you shoot really tight against a wall and there’s one thing that says, ‘It’s 1959! I Like Ike!’ We don’t shoot like that. We shoot things like a dance. We write things like a dance.”
That’s something that Marin Hinkle, who plays Midge’s mother, Rose, picked up on even before she auditioned, when she first saw the pilot script and a stage direction for her character that read, “She enters the room as if in her own MGM musical.”
“I came from dance, and was a baby ballerina,” Hinkle says, also mentioning Sherman-Palladino’s background as a trained dancer. Any of the show’s many ambitious tracking shots—we were given a sneak peek of one from season two zooming through a crowded department store and into a bustling phone operator bank—are feats of choreography as ambitious and exhilarating as a Broadway production number. “It’s like a piece of musical theatre without the singing,” Hinkle says.
The cast keeps getting asked if the show feels any different in season two now that they’ve received so much acclaim. “I never really have a good answer,” Brosnahan says. “The show came out, and people liked it, and I have a trophy on my toilet. And then we started shooting season two.”
The one difference, which still blows the Palladinos’ minds, is the scale. Taking the “go big or go home” mentality to heart, they packed up the entire production and went to Paris to shoot on-location. More, it’s not their only big trip. Production trekked to upstate New York for an episode set at a resort in the Catskills—the kind made iconic by Dirty Dancing.
“Each place we go, they bring on the costumes and sets and we all hold hands as hundreds of people bring everything up like, ‘Oh my god!’” Hinkle says.
“Over 200 background people!” Shalhoub marvels.
“And cars and backdrops and Paris and rain and baguettes,” Hinkle lists.
“We really have expanded outwards and upwards,” Shalhoub says, “and we gotta run to keep up.”
It was never the intent for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to make as much of a political or cultural statement as it eventually did, given the timing of its release just weeks after the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations broke, streaming amid the watershed of ensuing #MeToo accounts. Its Golden Globe win came at a ceremony to which all the women wore black in solidarity.
“It’s great that people are reading that into the show,” Palladino says. “I think they’re responding to her strength, that if you knock her down she’s gonna get right back up and be stronger than she was before.”
But, Sherman-Palladino stresses, their show is not about a woman being abused.
“She loved her life and loved her husband,” she says. “She’s not someone who’s looking out the window and thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder if there’s something else out there…’ She was very happy in her six blocks.”
Still, audiences responded to the idea of the housewife as a superhero, especially when set in the 1950s. That was a time when pop culture and certainly TV shows honed the housewife stereotype, and there’s power in seeing that stereotype thwarted.
“There’s been a lot of movies and TV shows about women in oppressed times, and done very well,” Sherman-Palladino says. “We wanted to do something about a woman who actually didn’t feel oppressed. She thought her life was terrific. And then she feels heartbreak and anger, and unleashes a side of herself that she had no idea was there.”
“It’s a woman who didn’t know she was in a box and is now learning, oh shit, I was in a box! There’s a wall there. And there’s another wall there. And another wall there,’” she continues. It’s a bit of a reverse thing in a period piece, and that’s what we thought would be fun.”
Plus, she says, “Then you get someone like Rachel and put her in that fucking coat and you’re done.”
Few images from the last TV season are more joyful than that image: Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, smirking in the show’s marketing materials while wearing that gorgeous designer red coat. The feeling it elicits echoes the entire spirit of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: joy, something there’s been a craven appetite for in recent months.
“That part is on purpose,” Palladino says, referencing that joy. “Some of the resonating issues were not, but that was.”
The couple wanted a joyous character and a joyous show.
“There’s so much cynicism,” Sherman-Palladino says. “Jesus Christ, read the paper, how can you not be cynical? And a lot of comedies now are getting deeper and going deeper into issues in people’s psyches, because comedy is great for that.”
“Some of them are murdering people, I heard!” Palladino teases, kicking off a bit. Sherman-Palladino adopts an old-timey detective’s voice as she volleys back. “They are! They’re murdering people!”
Getting serious again, Sherman-Palladino says that baseline of joy allows the show to lean into darker tones and the bittersweetness of Midge’s journey. With every choice comes consequences, including the choice to pursue a career in comedy while raising a family in 1959.
“The very brave choice she makes is going to have consequences on the other side, so there is another tone we wanted to throw out there,” she says, teasing season two. “And there are a lot of good coats.”