There are television shows with Jewish plot-lines, and then there’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. From the series outset, which airs this week, it’s non-stop kosher comedy, with jokes about “getting the rabbi” for breaking the fast, or brisket being used as a bribe.
Mrs Maisel is the story of 1950s housewife Miriam “Midge” Maisel (played by House of Cards’ Rachel Brosnahan) who embarks on a career as a comedienne after her marriage collapses. It’s the latest from Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel, the pair best known for the smash-hit Gilmore Girls, which ran for seven series and returned for a Netflix reunion last year.
Although Mrs Maisel is set in Manhattan, rather than small-town Connecticut, it shares at least one thing with Gilmore Girls: a fast-talking, garrulous brunette heroine who is the life of every party. Is Midge a Jewish version of Lorelai Gilmore?
“I always thought Lorelai was the Jewish Lorelai,” jokes Sherman-Palladino when we meet in London. Like her creations, she lights up the room, talking a mile a minute and wearing fabulous bejewelled shoes. “I wrote her as a sort of Jewish character.” The bickering Gilmores were the ultimate Wasps, she says, “but if you had the same rhythms with a New York accent it could have been Jewish”.
But she thinks the two leads are very different. “Lorelai’s humour comes from a defence mechanism. She is protecting herself from the world, whereas Midge’s comes from the fact that she has all this confidence. She is the princess of her part of the Upper West Side.”
Mrs Maisel is set partly at the Gaslight, the eponymous Greenwich Village venue that was most recently featured in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Running the fictional Gaslight is Susie, played by Alex Borstein, a sarcastic foil for Midge’s optimism.
“When you see two men in movies they call it a bromance; this to me feels like a womance,” says Borstein, a comedienne and writer best known for voicing Lois in Family Guy. “Susie falls in love with Midge a bit, and she does force Susie to open up. They make each other better people.”
Susie and Midge, she suggests, are a modern version of Mary and Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. “That was the quintessential opposites-attract female love story and that’s what I think we have here.”
Borstein has been friends with Sherman-Palladino for 20 years — “real friends, not just a kiss on the cheek when you see each other” — and jumped at the role. “Sight unseen I said: ‘Of course!’”
Susie, like Midge, is written as Jewish. Sherman-Palladino’s past work, which includes the ballet-focused series Bunheads, was not at all Jewish; why go in that direction now?
“The New York humour scene was Jewish and had that Jewish rhythm and energy, with people like Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce,” she explains. “It felt like that’s the story.”
“When I read the script it felt immediately like home,” adds Borstein. “The father, the expectations set on this Jewish girl, it felt very comfortable.”
Borstein herself brings in Shabbat with her two children every week and is the daughter of a Shoah survivor.
The show’s pilot is set during Kol Nidre. Wouldn’t Midge have been at shul, rather than at a comedy club? “The timeline is nuts,” admits Sherman-Palladino, but she adds: “The rabbi matters to them and the culture and community, but they wouldn’t necessarily go to temple.”
She pitched the premise on a whim. “I came up with this story of an Upper West Side wife and mother being sucked into Greenwich Village. I blurted it out and then had to go and write it,” she says. “My dad was a comic so I think this was lying dormant in my brain.”
The Maisels, however, are not based on her family. Her mother was not Jewish, although Sherman-Palladino was raised culturally Jewish and the family would go to shul on the High Holy-Days. “When I was little, they gave me the choice of Hebrew school or ballet and of course I chose ballet because if you give a six-year-old a choice of a tutu of course she’s going to go for it,” she says. Nowadays, her connection with the faith is mostly through “working with lots of Jews”, but the culture remains important to her. “The humour and the banter around it.”
Midge isn’t really patterned after anyone, though Borstein suggests Joan Rivers. “If anything she is more of a female Lenny Bruce, speaking to the hypocrisy she sees around her,” says Sherman-Palladino.
“I didn’t want to write the story of a 1950s women looking out of the window unhappily. That’s been done so many times before. I wanted her to be happy and, when her world blew up, for her to discover there are other things you can want.”
Nevertheless, it’s clearly a feminist piece; Midge begins it in her husband Joel’s shadow and steps into the limelight. Sherman-Palladino agrees it is timely, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, saying “any profession that has that much money and power running around corrupts. When all the people at the top are white men and have all the power, you’re going to have a problem.”
Mrs Maisel, which critics have already praised, will no doubt delight scores of Gilmore Girls fans out there. The series first aired in 2000 but remains a fan favourite. Sherman-Palladino is amazed it still attracts such enthusiasm. “I’m really surprised that it still resonates with today’s teenagers,” she adds modestly, pointing out that not only does it predate the Snapchat era, the Gilmores start off by relying on pagers and answering machines. “Yet people say ‘my 15-year-old is watching and loves it’.”
Perhaps one reason is that Gilmore Girls was — like Mrs Maisel — unashamedly clever, with tight, smart dialogue and humour based on niche cultural references.
“We’ve always believed in the intelligence of the viewing public and it’s the networks who didn’t,” Sherman-Palladino notes (after a dispute, she had no involvement in the seventh series of Gilmore Girls). “I had many arguments about this over the years but the idea of dumbing things down is ridiculous. If people are interested, they will keep watching.”
Gilmore Girls’ Netflix reincarnation allowed Sherman-Palladino to use the ending she had always known would conclude the series. Does she have the same up her sleeve for Mrs Maisel, which has already been commissioned for a second series? “I know the scene, I know how it will end,” she teases. And with that, she breezes out, as charming and effervescent as any Gilmore or Maisel.
Amazon Original series ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’ is available on Amazon Prime Video, November 29