Where it comes to the brilliance of Amy Sherman-Palladino, the mind behind the cultural phenomenon that was Gilmore Girls, she may be somewhat lacking in the area of titles. Bunheads, The Return of Jezebel James, hell even Gilmore Girls, are known to have turned some people off without giving them a fair shake. A title with the alliteration of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel could also be putting some off…but considering the salty personality I’ve seen from Mrs. Palladino in interviews, she probably doesn’t care if she lacks a certain cross-over appeal. She is a woman who knows what she likes, is sure of what she dislikes, and trusts her loyal audience to follow her to the next project. And part of the delight of the pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is it feels exactly like the project she intended it to be.
So if Mrs. Maisel isn’t the children’s book its title might suggest, what is this new Amazon pilot getting critical raves? Stand-up comedy, of course, specifically the scene that came out of the Village parallel to folk in the late 50s, early 60s. It’s the same time and place that gave us comics like Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce (depicted in the show), and Joan Rivers. Rivers is the loose (very loose) inspiration for Mrs. Maisel, played by House of Cards and Manhattan’s Rachel Brosnahan. In 1958, she’s the definition of an upper-class, upper-West Side Jewish housewife. She’s loud, opinionated, and funny. She’s also far more capable at connecting with people than her husband, an amateur comedian she spends nights at the Gaslight Cafe encouraging. He wants to be a comedian (sometimes he’s pretty good), but four years in and he’s still stealing jokes from Bob Newhart’s album. And one bad night throws him into a complete crisis, and he walks out on that Upper West Side good life.
Thus begins the second half of the pilot (occasionally the show feels like a pilot and first episode rather than one singular hour-long episode). Drunk and starving (due to her Yom Kippur fast) she takes the stage of her husband’s old haunt and improvises a set (closing with some magnificently timed nudity). Arrested the same night as her idol Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) she considers the advice of Susie, Gaslight’s bartender played by Palladino regular Alex Borstein in a standout role, and decides to give comedy a try.
Amazon dropped the pilot, one of five to vote on this pilot season, without much fanfare. The stand-up comedy angle flew under the radar until it dropped, but the show feels like it perfectly fits into the current trend of stand-up focused series. The initial premise is something of a gender reversal on Pete Holmes’ Crashing, each with their unique comic mind guiding the show. And like I’m Dying Up Here, Showtime’s upcoming series, is a period piece, and possibly the best show since Mad Men to use the 50s-60s era setting to tell the story.
One of Palladino’s great strengths as a comedy writer has always been her ability to write interactions between women which are believable and funny. The women on the series (Brosnahan, Borstein, Marin Hinkle, and Bailey De Young), are skilled with Palladino’s signature fast dialogue and talk like women do behind closed doors. Likewise Tony Shalhoub as Maisel’s father, Michael Zegen as her husband, and Luke Kirby all fit in nicely to the female-driven series; although Kirby may be using a little too much Columbo in his Bruce impression).
But if the show’s the shining light of this crop of Amazon pilots, and one of the best pilots the company’s produced so far, it falls primarily on Brosnahan and Palladino’s credit. Brosnahan, a rising star since appearing in House of Cards and Manhattan, is giving what should be her star-making performance. She feels like no one else on TV right now and on the strength of her true radiance seen on screen immediately creates an instant connection with the audience. And while Palladino has a certain “type of show”, this feels like the first show she’s truly sculpted from top to bottom to be exactly what she wants it to be. It’s impeccably designed and photographed, turning old-time New York into a Technicolor movie world; all while retaining her love for the long take and screwball comedy.
It’s likely that Amazon will pick the show up as it’s, the best show of the new pilots. And Palladino is a big name for the company to get, even if only known to a certain small, but loyal audience. Because even with the rise of stand-up series we’ve seen recently, including Palladino’s voice in the mix feels like a breath of fresh air.