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Blueprints: "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"

As we approach the Emmys, Jorge is looking at the pilot episodes of Best Series contenders. 

Amy Sherman-Palladino made a name for herself with dialogue. Best known as the creator of Gilmore Girls, but also behind the one-season wonder Bunheads, her newest series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel follows a 1950s housewife who finds refuge in standup comedy after her husband leaves her. The delightfully twee vintage setting and the world of verbose comedy sets and big performer personalities is a perfect fit for her now immediately recognizable patter-chatter, all anchored by a revelatory performance from Rachel Brosnahan. 

Let’s take a look at the climax of the pilot episode: Midge’s drunken, cathartic stand-up set. How she slowly wins the audience. How it escalates on the page. How the endless sentences, tangents, and colorful adjectives create explosive tension...

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Written by: Amy Sherman-Palladino
[You can read the full script here.]

The scene starts out relatively tame. Midge has found out her husband Joel is cheating on her. She returns to the comedy club where she performed to get back the dish she bribed the manager with. She’s drunk. She’s angry. She needs some release. She has always been drawn to the stage, and knows she belongs there more than Joel ever did. “Her eyes fixed on the stage, [she] slowly gets up and steps up on it, almost as if in a trance.” What comes after is instinctual for her. 

Palladino doesn’t go full-in to an explosion of dialogue right away. She lets it build. She lets Midge warm up to the stage, and the audience warm up to her. She gets heckled, and runs along with it. She then starts telling the story of her marriage; her comedy will always be based on herself.


This is a cathartic moment of release for Midge. She’s not really putting on a performance. Her set is unpolished and messy, but there’s something about it, and her presence, that’s captivating. Palladino shows this magnetism by cutting between her and the audience, especially Suzie, who would later become Midge’s manager. “She’s fascinated now.”

As has become tradition with Palladino's writing, the conversation starts to go on wild tangents, asking rhetorical questions, and making asides to the audience. Midge interacts with a guy coming out of the bathroom. She talks to a woman in the audience. She tries impressions and accents.

As the set starts to pick up steam, her deliver gets more frantic and hyped and convoluted. The script uses parentheticals throughout the dialogue to help us keep track of it all: who she talks to (“to the Blonde”), how she delivers the lines (“a little more heightened”, “tearing up”, “pissed off again”), and even her physicality. (“sits on the stool”). It’s choreography built into the dialogue. It’s vocal coaching.


At the peak of the performance, as Midge loses herself in her anger and adrenaline, as she vomits all her problems to a group of total strangers that are eating out of her hand, the dialogue gets bigger. It ends up taking almost an entire uninterrupted page. The energy and pace is insanely high. The parentheses keep indicating her movements, painting a visual picture in the page alongside the words. As a reader, I needed to catch a breath by the end. I can’t imagine what Brosnahan had to do.

Which is to say that such stylized dialogue is nothing without a talented performer that can actually sell it. Someone who can navigate the labyrinth of emotions, actions, and intonations that is required of them without losing authenticity. Lauren Graham did it. Sutton Foster did it. And Rachel Brosnahan delivers one of the liveliest performances of the year, injecting every word, sentence, and aside in the page with empathy and charm.

Amy Sherman-Palladino is one of the few writers (like Aaron Sorkin, or Joss Whedon, or Diablo Cody) whose voice comes through in every single word and action of their characters It’s always interesting (and a personal delight) to see how that is captured in the page, and how the other elements within a show bring it out more. 

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a fast-paced, highbrow-lowbrow hybrid, tongue-twisting show, whose words and sentences and monologues reflect the work its creator has always done. They start in one place, go in an unexpected direction, come back around and then escape you again. They win you over by drowning you in nice-sounding words and rhythmic repetition. Like Midge Maisel in her stand up.

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Reader Comments (7)

That scene really is one of the best scenes of the year. Right up there with the parking garage confrontation in the finale of The Americans. The writing just sparkles, and Brosnahan becomes a star right as you watch. It's mesmerizing. And the writing and her performance only get better from there on out. I love this show so much. Here's hoping Amy Sherman-Palladino FINALLY wins an Emmy.

August 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Unpopular opinion: I think Brosnahan is totally wrong for the part. She's good but she's miscast.

August 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I wondered what was behind this tongue twisting title of a show. Just watch the pilot, it's amazing.
Great shows drop you into a fully realized world, Deadwood, Lost, Mad Men...
I sat rapt with wonder and delight, then watched the next episode that was just as good. The whole season is fabulous.
I loved the acting, the writing, and the whole production design and have been urging others to see it ever since. Amy Sherman-Palladino deserves an Emmy. I know it's peak TV, and there's too much to watch, but watch this. You won't be sorry.

August 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Sherman has writing credit for "Wait Til Your Father Comes Home", the episode of ROSEANNE in which the titular character's abusive father dies. Everyone deals with it differently, from an hysterical Jackie to an ambivalent Darlene to Roseanne's mother who is more concerned with confronting her husband's mistress of 20 years. It's full of pathos and one of the show's best episodes -- Roseanne and Laurie Metcalf won Emmys for it.

August 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

@Peggy Sue: I'm open to this opinion. Could you expand?

For me, she has a lot of baggage from House of Cards and Manhattan, so I'm almost onboard with her here, but not quite.

This is going to sound weird, but I think the most interesting actor on that show is Michael Zegen, who plays Midge's mostly unlikable husband Joel. He has a Peter Riegert in Animal House look and quality to him.

August 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

I just don't think she's got funny bones. She's a good actress and that's why the performance works, but I would have prefered someone more... sparky?

August 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Another (very) unpopular opinion: I sat through the first two episodes of this series really trying to like it... and I did not believe a single thing that happened in it. I found it utterly fake and overwrought. (Understand that I ALMOST remember this time and Jewish milieu personally - I was born in 1955, we lived just north of the Bronx line.)

And I have to get this off my chest: At a time when the watchwords are representation and respect for minorities, I was really annoyed by the ENDLESS dead-horse tropes and stereotypes about these Jewish characters. How come these broad stereotypes are still acceptable?!? If equivalent stereotypes were employed about Asians or African-Americans (etc.), and in some cases the actors weren't legitimate representative members of those groups, there'd be a huge outcry at how disrespectful it was.

Look, I love Tony Shaloub as much as the next guy, but not when he's playing an outdated, over the top Jewish stereotype in 2018! Feh.

August 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

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