Amazon’s new original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the latest work from TV showrunner extraordinaire Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, and in many ways, it stands on its own. Mrs. Maisel has a distinctive premise — a jilted ’50s housewife takes up stand-up comedy after her husband leaves her for his secretary — and there’s a lot to differentiate it from Sherman-Palladino’s previous work: its historical period, its strong Jewish cultural framework, its urban setting, and alas, its lack of Kelly Bishop.
But the jump to Amazon has done nothing to change all the deep preoccupations and superficial motifs from Gilmore Girls or Bunheads. You will absolutely still recognize an Amy Sherman-Palladino joint when you see it. She has a style. She has writerly tics. She also has some particular obsessions, and Mrs. Maisel features some returning faces that will feel like familiar friends. And now, with her third major TV series, we have enough from her body of work to sketch out all the defining features of what goes into a Sherman-Palladino TV series.
The One-of-a-Kind Dialogue
This is the most definitive and obvious feature of Sherman-Palladino’s work: Every character talks a mile a minute, and they do it in a highly patterned, reference-laden, ping-pong dialogue style that’s more aspirational than it is realistic. That feels like a stylistic choice, and in some sense, it is — the dialogue can act as a rhythmic burble along the surface of each story. But like The West Wing, another fast-talking show whose showrunner has been compared with Sherman-Palladino, the dialogue isn’t just a distinctive choice. If there’s a fundamental theory of these shows, it’s something like this: The interesting people are always the ones who can keep up with the patter. Pity those characters who can’t or won’t follow the heady verbal deluge. If they stay on the show long, it’ll be mostly as dumb comic relief.
The Life-Altering Event
Mrs. Maisel shares a common structure with Bunheads, one that can be fascinating but can also make a show a bit hard to jump into. On both shows, we spend time getting to know the protagonist and understanding her life, but by the end of each pilot, her life has completely fallen apart and will look dramatically different going forward. The Bunheads pilot is a long, slow chain of life-destroying explosions, starting with the protagonist’s decision to run away from her life as a Vegas showgirl and get married to a relative stranger, and ending with his very sudden death. It’s a storytelling device that Gilmore Girls avoided, likely in part because its pilot was written for a traditional major network and needed to be more representative of what the whole show would look like. Still, the idea of a life that crumbles apart and must be remade is built into the DNA of that show too: It’s the entire reason why Lorelai is a single mother raising Rory in Stars Hollow.
On a life-remaking scale from Gilmore to Bunheads, Mrs. Maisel’s pilot rates somewhere in the middle, but it’s closer to Bunheads. We have the fun of meeting Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge Maisel, and then we watch as her perfectly organized life collapses.
The Familiar Faces
Like many directors and showrunners, Amy Sherman-Palladino has a group of actors she enjoys recasting in each project. Most importantly for Mrs. Maisel viewers, she found a role truly fitting for Alex Borstein, who previously appeared in Gilmore Girls as not one but two characters (Drella the harpist and Emily Gilmore’s stylist Miss Celine), and who also made a few small appearances in Bunheads. Borstein’s character on Mrs. Maisel, an ambitious, no-nonsense comedy-club manager named Susie, is one of the immediately highlights. For Bunheads fans, the series also features the return of blonde bunhead Bailey De Young.
More abstractly, even though Kelly Bishop and several other AS-P regulars don’t appear on Mrs. Maisel — or, at least not in the first several episodes — it’s become even clearer that the protagonist of these shows is a type. She is tall, lanky, and brunette. She is a dominating presence in her world, and she’s either in the act of finding herself or soon to be pursuing some new professional passion. She is firmly agnostic about love interests, an argument that’s admittedly harder to make for Gilmore Girls, but one which I will happily push anyhow, since we all know the show was never strongest when it was mostly about Luke and Lorelai. Midge checks all of those boxes.
The (Kinda) Dysfunctional Family
Each leading woman from Gilmore Girls, Bunheads, and Mrs. Maisel is also entangled in a fraught, knotty parental relationship. The generational backbone of Gilmore Girls played with parenting, control, and friendship across multiple relationships, and some of the show’s strongest threads teased out the intergenerational snarl of the strong-willed Gilmore women. Those same ideas were transmuted and softened into the Bunheads premise, where Madame Fanny was a looser, more mentor-like matriarchal figure and Sutton Foster’s Michelle tried to find her place between Fanny and the young ballerinas. These elements are only lurking in the Mrs. Maisel pilot, but it’s not hard to see how they’ll crop up: Midge lives in apartment directly beneath her parents, and her father is played by Tony Shalhoub. There are definitely gonna be some parenting stories.
The Concern About Body Image
Again and again, these shows keep going back to food issues. Gilmore Girls had some truly cringeworthy body-shaming moments, and Midge Maisel is obsessive about maintaining her figure to the point that she measures her ankles, thighs, and waist every day. When Bunheads tied those same body-image issues to the relentlessly physical world of ballet and dance, they almost seemed healthier and less toxic when they were out in the open as a fundamental element of the show. Even then, though, they were pretty messy. Mrs. Maisel might eventually break the mold, but the pattern seems pretty clear at this point.
The Business We Call Show
As the cast of minor Gilmore Girls characters grew more and more defined, little bits of showbiz flare began to crop up in the periphery of the series. From Miss Patty’s dance studio to Babette and Morey’s musical act to Taylor Doose’s remarkable theatrical streak, a surprising amount of Gilmore Girls storytelling involves performing. (Remember that lengthy history of Stars Hollow: The Musical in the Netflix revival?)
Showiness then became the actual premise for Bunheads, which was described more than once as a series set inside Miss Patty’s dance studio, but for Bunheads, dance was always a given. It just was, in an unquestioning, “obviously then everyone does a dance number” kind of way, and the performativity of it felt more about creating character development than “here’s why these people care about ballet so much.”
Mrs. Maisel strikes an impressive balance between the two, and it’s the first series that feels like Sherman-Palladino is finally looking directly at the nexus of performance, artistry, and how to build a character. Because the subject is stand-up comedy, and because much of the comedy comes straight from Midge’s life, performing itself is a way to further the story in a sense that Bunheads always struggled to do with dance. (Whether that was the show’s fault or the fault of an audience that couldn’t be relied upon to see new depths of teen angst in a ballet performance to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” I’m not sure.) Mrs. Maisel is interested in the process of performance, the work behind it, and the study and craft of it — an avenue that’s always been glimpsed in the earlier shows, but one that never had a chance to become the focus. Finally, Sherman-Palladino has landed on a show that’s really about show business.