It took going back to the 1950s — and dropping her signature pop culture references along the way — but Amy Sherman-Palladino has finally crafted an unconditionally worthy follow-up to Gilmore Girls.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Sherman-Palladino's new pilot for Amazon, is a sharp, quick and clever period piece about what happens when a surprisingly funny housewife's marriage goes up in flames. The answer? Comedy gold.
Rachel Brosnahan, an actress reminiscent of Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham and Bunheads' Sutton Foster in both comedic style and appearance, plays the titular Midge Maisel. She's got everything a 1958 New York housewife could want: husband Joel, kids, a fabulous Upper West Side apartment. She and Joel even have a "fun couple thing": He performs stand-up comedy at a small bar in the East Village.
But cracks in their seemingly perfect connection start forming when Midge learns Joel is using a stolen ("borrowed," he insists) act instead of writing his own material. Her suggestion that he come up with some original stuff, even suggesting a joke to add, leads to Joel embarrassing himself, admitting to an affair and leaving his wife in anger.
Wine-drunk and spiraling after her appearance-obsessed parents blame her for Joel leaving — "What did you do?" her mom asks immediately — Midge winds up back at the nightclub, accidentally stumbling into her own act about her failing marriage. She, to put it bluntly, kills.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel pilot bookends itself with Midge's comedy: a toast at her own wedding opens the episode, and her drunken stand-up at the bar concludes it. Both times, she's a master of her domain, understanding comedic timing better than her husband could ever hope to. Her natural talent inspires one of the bar employees, Suzie (played by longtime Sherman-Palladino collaborator Alex Borstein), to take an interest in her.
Like in both Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, Sherman-Palladino shows vested interest in relationships between women. Yes, Midge is married, but the most interesting connections are those with fellow housewives Imogene and Suzie. The latter relationship is particularly compelling, not unlike that of Michelle and Fanny on Bunheads, but a shade darker and more pensive.
"I don't mind being alone," Suzie tells Midge after her stand-up set, trying to rally the housewife to invest in comedy. "I just do not wanna be insignificant."
This kind of warmth stands in direct contrast with Midge's mother, Rose, who obsesses over looks and has clearly instilled much of that neurosis into her daughter. Rose bemoans Midge's baby's long forehead by saying, "It's easier to be happy when you're pretty," and Midge hardly disagrees.
These kinds of varied relationships, each influencing the protagonist differently, is nothing new for Sherman-Palladino. Hell, it was practically the thesis of Gilmore Girls. But for the first time since her magnum opus WB series, it feels like she has created something that's not just special, but is also exceedingly well-done.
There are all sorts of callbacks to Sherman-Palladino's previous work in this pilot, like Midge measuring herself in a leotard in front of Imogene, played by former Bunheads ballet dancer Bailey De Young. In a flashback scene, Midge bleaches herself, then has to run outside in pain — much like Lane Kim did in the third season of Gilmore Girls. But these mostly serve as fun Easter eggs for fans of Sherman-Palladino's oeuvre.
For the most part, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel serves as independent product; a maturation for the showrunner. Gone are the numerous pop culture references, though the fast-talking delivery of Sherman-Palladino's dialogue remains. (At one funny point, Midge chastises Joel for delivering his jokes too slowly.) Even without the references, however, this show is easily the creator's funniest — with tons of pathos and drama to boot.
Bunheads and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life both had their charms and much that is worthy of recommendation, but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a more self-assured show. It may only be a pilot now, but one can easily imagine what's in store for Midge. Her marriage may be over, but her future is bright.