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Amy Sherman-Palladino’s father didn’t have a day job. Instead, he worked mostly at night — and mostly on stage. Don Sherman, who died in 2012, was a comic.
“That’s how he bought our house and made his money,” Sherman-Palladino, creator of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” told The Lily.
Her father’s story — and growing up in the comedy world — inspired Sherman-Palladino to create “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which swept the 2018 Emmys. But instead of centering a show around a man pursuing comedy in the late 1950s, Sherman-Palladino thought it would be more interesting to put a woman on stage. So she took her father, a Jewish man from the Bronx, and “sawed him down, gave him hair and put him in a dress,” Sherman-Palladino joked ahead of the show’s second season debut on Dec. 5.
The resulting character? Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan, is a sharp Jewish housewife who attacks “life with a lot of confidence and a lot of joy,” Sherman-Palladino said. She charges forward on the path chosen for her, embracing the clothes — and matching pillbox hats, shoes and jewelry — the husband, the two kids and the enormous apartment with a doorman on New York’s Upper West Side. Then it all falls apart when Joel (Michael Zegen), Midge’s husband, leaves her for his secretary.
The couple had just returned home from a night out during which at the Gaslight Cafe, where Joel, an aspiring stand-up comedian, had bombed on stage. “I thought my life was gonna be something different,” Joel says while packing a suitcase. “I’m never going to be a professional comedian.”
But Midge is. Wearing a long blue nightgown and a pink coat from Saks, Midge gets on the subway and wanders drunkenly into the Gaslight. In front of a small crowd, she delivers a comedic performance that will alter her ambitions.
That scene — and the rest of the first season — captivated audiences. For Halloween, fans replicated Midge’s looks, from the pink coat to her all-black “downtown” outfit. They dressed up as Susie (Alex Borstein), Midge’s tough manager, by donning her usual get-up: suspenders, a newsboy cap and keys to the Gaslight on a chain around her neck.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won two Golden Globes and eight Emmys. Brosnahan and Borstein picked up trophies, as did the casting directors. Despite creating “Gilmore Girls” and the short-lived “Bunheads,” Sherman-Palladino had only been nominated once prior to her historic Emmy wins this year: It was 1992, when she wrote for “Roseanne.”
“When we did the pilot for ‘Maisel,’ we had no idea anybody was gonna give a shit,” said Sherman-Palladino, who writes, directs and executive produces the show with her husband and longtime collaborator, Daniel Palladino. They put their all into “Maisel,” making sure every detail screamed 1950s New York. Sherman-Palladino and Palladino even served as music supervisors. The result is almost theatrical, in part because a fair portion of “Maisel’s” cast are New York stage actors, casting director Cindy Tolan said.
“The acknowledgement of the awards and people loving the show is the biggest f---ing cherry on top of the sundae that you can possibly imagine, especially since so many people were noticed,” Sherman-Palladino said. But she doesn’t care if the accolades keep coming. “The work is what’s important. It’s important that we try to do our best for our actors, that we put stories out there that challenge them.”
In some ways, the production has already challenged the cast and crew of “Maisel” plenty. As an actor, “you have to be a beast with language” to keep up with the scripts, Tolan said. And Borstein praised the “always exhausted” but brilliant crew, who she called “magicians.”
With its neverending intricacies, “Maisel” takes a “Herculean effort by so many people,” but Sherman-Palladino said her team always rises to the occasion. It’s what made Season 2, which consists of more episodes than Season 1, possible. Picking up where Season 1 left off, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” takes viewers on a convertible ride with the top down in Season 2, from Paris to the idyllic Catskill Mountains.
Here’s what viewers can expect:
Feeling unneeded by her daughter and husband, Midge’s mother, Rose (Marin Hinkle), abandons New York for a cramped apartment in Paris, art classes and a dog named Simone.
In France, we meet a “different Rose,” Hinkle said. Until Joel left Midge, Midge was, by design, a version of her mother. When that changes, it throws Rose “off balance,” Hinkle said. “It’s a catalyst for [Rose] to question [her] choices as well.”
Watching Hinkle transform her character is delightful and surprisingly raw. Rose, who is viewed as fragile to those around her at home, is suddenly carefree and outspoken. In Paris, her constraints — which include extensive nighttime beauty routines and neverending social calendars — are gone.
For the rest of the season, Rose’s storyline resembles a “pinball machine,” Hinkle said. With “bopping colors and wonderful sounds,” it goes in a lot of different directions, changing her relationship with her husband, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), who becomes a touch sweeter when he realizes he can no longer lock himself in a study when things go awry.
At the end of Season 1, few people in Midge’s life know that at night, she’s performing at comedy clubs. This season, Midge spends a lot of time and energy guarding that secret.
“She’s just terrified about what people will think,” Brosnahan said. “Midge also doesn’t like uncertainty. It’s not something that afflicts her very often. … She’s aware that it would explode her entire world, which she’s already exploded once.”
In between working at B. Altman, a luxury department store, and vacationing in the Catskills, Midge still manages to find a stage. In Paris, she delivers an impromptu comedy set with the help of a French-speaking American. Back in New York City, she is fueled by men who mock her as a “lady comic” who doesn’t take off her clothes.
“Men in general think they are the only ones who get to use comedy to close up the holes in their soul,” Midge says during a set. “Comedy is fueled by oppression. By the lack of power. By sadness and disappointments. By abandonment and humiliation. Who the hell does that describe more than women?”
Midge and Susie continue to be an unlikely pair, and through witty dialogue, the writers willingly address the inequalities in the two women’s lives. Susie is broke and struggling to figure out how to be a good manager. “I’m picking up half-eaten apples out of trash cans at the port authority,” she tells Midge at a diner. “It’s getting dire here.”
Largely through her relationship with Susie, “Midge is confronted with her privilege in a brand new way,” Brosnahan said.
“Susie just being in her life is kind of an eye-opener,” Borstein said. “Susie was not handed anything or coddled or taken care of. [She] had to fight for every scrap she has.”
Midge is forced to realize that “when she and Susie say goodnight at the end of the day, she takes a cab to the Upper West Side, and a maid answers the door, and the kids are fed and put to bed,” Sherman-Palladino said. “Susie walks or maybe she has a subway token to go back to her shitty apartment and hopes that the radiator is working.”
They lead vastly different lives, but, Sherman-Palladino said, “Midge can’t do this without Susie, and Susie absolutely can’t do this without Midge.”
The wardrobe in “Maisel” is so visually appealing that for a millisecond, you forget about comfort and instead are left pondering whether you, too, can pull off a monochromatic look or wear full-length silk nightgowns to bed.
Donna Zakowska, an award-winning costume designer, developed most of the principal characters’ clothing from scratch. From the beginning, she has remained steeped in period research, examining creations by New York milliners, looking at Saul Leiter photographs, and leafing through old copies of French Vogue.
“I come from a very Italian household where there was a love of clothing,” Zakowska said. “There was an obsession with the details being right: Having the right bag with the right stockings and the right dress. … People really defined occasions and dressed in different ways.”
Midge does wear an occasional black dress to perform, but pink is her color: “It’s a touchstone for her identity,” Zakowska said.
For scenes set in Paris, Zakowska chose darker, more somber tones as a backdrop. It helps Midge stand out as she walks through the streets of Paris, “floating in the middle” in pale pastels, creating “romantic, sort of ghost-like images with all the darkness,” Zakowska said. To create a sophisticated schoolgirl-like wardrobe for Rose, who is yearning for a past version of herself, the costume designer thought back to her years studying painting at the École des Beaux-Arts, where there were lots of scarves, and every coat resembled an artist’s smock.
Throughout Season 2, the show keenly addresses gender battles that are still being waged today. In some ways, Midge feels like she is betraying her family by pursuing her career. Joel, who is slightly less annoying this season, can’t handle the fact that Midge is more talented than he is. And when Susie talks to a reporter about Midge, he says what is still loudly murmured:
“Women are still fighting the same fight,” said Borstein, who plays Susie. “Women are still told we need to balance home life and work. Women are still constantly put in a position of feeling like they have to choose.”
There is a sense of parity now, but “we still have such a long road ahead of us,” Hinkle said. “Maybe this show makes people think, ‘Well damn, we haven’t come far enough.’ ”
Even though it begins in 1958, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” remains culturally relevant in many ways but one: During a time when shows like “Insecure,” “Atlanta,” “Killing Eve,” “Black-ish” and “This Is Us” are being recognized for bringing diversity to television, “Maisel” remains largely white. There’s Harriet Owens (Wakeema Hollis), a black woman who works at B. Altman with Midge. Otherwise, the non-white characters exist on the periphery. So far, it’s unclear whether Midge — or many people around her — are aware of the racial hardships permeating every facet of society in the 1950s, and there have only been a few small scenes dedicated to African Americans working in or around the comedy scene.
Of course, there’s still time: Amazon only provided screeners for the first half of Season 2, and a third season is already in motion, leaving the door open for Sherman-Palladino to broaden “Maisel’s” historical scope and pull more from her father’s comedy legacy. Sherman opened for Dinah Washington, a legendary black singer and pianist, at the Apollo Theater in 1963, and he continued to tour with her.
For now, “Maisel” continues to live “in this slightly whimsical space between fantasy and reality,” as Brosnahan put it. It’s an escape, which is partly what has made the show a success.
“We need some levity,” Hinkle said, “and Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino know how to make people laugh.”
Season 2 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is now available to stream on Amazon. (Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post. The Lily is a product of The Washington Post.)