Golden Words — The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “Pilot”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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For many people, myself included, recognition of Amy Sherman-Palladino as one of the strongest, most distinctive writers in television was overdue. The creator of the Gilmore Girls established herself as a crafter of dense, rapid-fire comic dialogue of the sort practically unseen since the true heyday of the Hollywood screwball comedy. And the stretched-to-its-limits rubber-band snap of her words, when executed correctly by actors prepared to keep up, was often dazzling. At roughly the same time Aaron Sorkin was vacuuming up Emmys with a roughly similar writing style on The West Wing, Sherman-Palladino was doing it better, just without the veneer of importance that came from staging his soap opera turns in the upper reaches of government.

Sherman-Palladino had a fairly rough go of it after she was pushed out of Gilmore Girls (as did the show which puttered along feebly without her), presiding over a justly maligned sitcom and a drama set at a ballet school that had its adherents but never really caught on with audiences. After a seasonally-specific reunion with Lorelei and Rory, Sherman-Palladino finally found her way to the project that would earn her widespread industry acclaim, helping to define modern Emmy bait in the process. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seems custom-built to earn entertainment industry awards.

Despite the praise I flung Sherman-Palladino’s writing above, the finest compliment I can pay to the pilot episode of the series, which won her the writing award in the comedy category at last year’s Emmys, is that it bears a surprisingly light version of her creative fingerprints. Some of her most familiar trappings are there — most notably the imperious, wealthy parents who just don’t get their brash, verbally dextrous daughter — the initiating episode in the television story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) feels properly beholden to the strictures of the narrative in a way that felt new for Sherman-Palladino. In nineteen-fifties New York City, Midge’s marriage falls apart, leaving her angry, desperate, and ranting, a condition which happens to translate nicely to the stand-up comedy stage. With an impromptu set at the Gaslight Cafe, Midge unwittingly launches a new career in showbiz.

If Sherman-Palladino’s best dialogues sounds as though it were teleported in from a different era, it only makes sense that shifting her fictional timeline closer to those bygone days also makes it more fitting. The tangle of words that could threaten to get in the way in other scenarios becomes as natural as the bleating car horns resonating from the busy city streets. And working with a handful of historic figures and real places also brings more discipline to Sherman-Palladino’s approach. It is a great testament to her dedication to making the series — or at least its first episode — an honest portrayal of the time that Sherman-Palladino writes great swaths of dialogue for a fiction version of Lenny Bruce, as forceful and particular of a voice as comedy has ever had, and makes it all solidly plausible as expressions of his whirring mind.

Sherman-Palladino picked up loads of trophies for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and is sure to collect many more before she’s done. All it took to make for that earlier neglect, it turns out, was to put her words in the right place.

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