When The Marvelous Mrs Maisel won Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, as well as for writing and direction and its creator Amy Sherman-Palladino took to the stage in 2018, it didn’t come as a major surprise for several reasons. The series itself has frequently proven itself to be one of the most wonderful series on television, marrying genuinely funny comedy to elegantly constructed dramatic beats.
The other reason it wasn’t a major surprise for some was that for anyone who already knew her work, Amy Sherman-Palladino was one of television’s great writers. If you had ever watched an episode of Gilmore Girls and stepped foot into the world of Stars Hollow, then you already knew that Sherman-Palladino was one of the small screen’s most underrated and undervalued geniuses finally getting her due.
There is a sizeable difference between television when Gilmore Girls first premiered and the streaming world into which The Marvelous Mrs Maisel made her debut. Gilmore Girls was very much part and parcel of The WB network and while it shared schedule space with the equally lauded and acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you couldn’t help but feel that it’s home on a smaller US television network filled to the brim with other teen and family dramas meant that it was practically ignored by award voters that otherwise would have been throwing accolades at it right, left and centre had it been airing on the likes of NBC or ABC.
The sole award it did win was for Outstanding Makeup for a Series, which it did so for season four’s brilliant The Festival of Living Art. However, at its peak, the series was right up there with The West Wing for delivering some of the greatest dialogue on the small screen and having it delivered at such a pace that it practically demanded the audience truly pay attention to get it all.
The pacy dialogue delivery and the amounts of it that were on the page meant that it had one of the most intense productions on television at the time. Scripts were longer than the norm and the working hours were quite considerable, especially for stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel who were frequently the ones delivering it throughout the majority of each episode’s run time.
There’s always been a sense of snobbery when it comes to the golden period of long-form runs on network television. Sure, the stories were frequently broken up by commercials and hiatuses in the middle of their seasons, but Gilmore Girls was amongst some of the best television of its era and for many of its fans that have also fallen deeply in love with the adventures of Midge and Susie, there is something gratifying in seeing Amy Sherman-Palladino have a moment in the sun, where the premiere of the latest season is seen as a major event that Amazon Prime Video pushes with its massive ad campaigns and proud proclamations of it being an awarding winning series.
It has in effect become a legacy series for them, something by which to hold up and say, ‘this is us and this is our brand of television’ and it’s a series that is none more reflective of the brilliance of its creator and showrunner.
Audiences and critics have applauded the fast-paced dialogue, constant use of witty one-liners and references to the pop culture of the era, but for anyone who has set foot into the world of Amy’s in the past then it comes almost like a lovely comfort blanket, even if the less restrictive nature of streaming means that there is the occasional swear word and nudity that was unheard of on The WB/The CW.
Gilmore Girls might have had an element of network television gloss to it, but Palladino has frequently been unafraid to add a bite to her scripts that has been allowed to grow a little bit more on Amazon, but which was always there with the work she made her name with.
Yes, Lorelai and Rory’s antics had a lot of humour and comedy to them, but the angst sometimes bit hard when it came to their relationships, not least when Lorelai’s will they/won’t they journey with local diner owner Luke came to an abrupt end due to some deception (Luke discovering he had a daughter, information he kept secret for several episodes) and Lorelai sleeping with ex-boyfriend and Rory’s father Christopher as a result.
Even going into the divisive revival (which is more interesting and better than it gets credit for), Palladino wasn’t afraid to lay down a more contentious exploration of Rory, showing how much the character had gravitated to a life of privilege. This came as a shock to a large part of the audience that criticised the character development even though the seven-season run of the series itself had pretty much gone down that route and which A Year in the Life felt like a natural extension of.
Like some other brilliant showrunners who have made their way from network television to the streaming world, not everything has been a success. It might be easy to think that Palladino went from Gilmore Girls to creating her current hit in the space of a few years, but in the interim, there was one sadly cancelled-before-its-time mini-classic and one commercial and critical failure.
Bunheads reunited Palladino with Kelly Bishop for a ballet school comedy-drama led by Sutton Foster. Running for only one season on what was then ABC Family, the series was as funny and witty as you would expect, but it didn’t get the ratings that it deserved. The less said about Fox Network sitcom The Adventures of Jezebel James the better. Yes, I love Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose too, but the mixture of Palladino’s writing and a studio-bound sitcom format didn’t work, a surprise really given that like so many writers with a fevered wit and ability with great dialogue, she started her career writing for sitcoms, most famously having spent time writing for Roseanne.
In some ways, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel was something of a comeback for the writer, a reminder of how great she was but which also placed her amongst the echelons of some of television’s best writers currently working. Comparisons were made with Mad Men, and like that series the series holds a modern mirror up to the real world with its 60s setting, revelling in the clothing and aesthetic but unafraid to point out the ugliness of how gender and racial equality were dealt with, even if there is a touch of fantasy gloss and froth to so much of that very aesthetic.
The trappings of screwball and romantic comedies are dotted around her scripts, but she is never afraid to plunge her lead characters into moral quagmires and difficult decision making, some of which can frequently prove contentious to the legion of fans her shows acquire.
However, she is also one of a kind. Her work has an ability to stand out from the crowd and can play away from the froth that one might expect they are going to get. From beginning to end, Gilmore Girls played out as a superlative portrayal of a family across multi-generational lines, one of those happy accidents the series fell into the more it discovered just what a sharp joy it had in Kelly Bishop’s portrayal of Emily Gilmore.
For all the dramas and travails that Rory and Lorelai find themselves exploring in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, perhaps the biggest strength of the entire revival mini-series is its delicately poignant and funny exploration of Emily’s grief at losing her husband Richard, a story telling choice the series had no option but to play with given the sad loss of Edward Herrmann prior to the revival being announced.
Like so many great writers who have made television their home, you can see recurring themes, character tropes and stories in her work, but she always seems to find new ways with which to bring them to life. She has managed to do something that other writers who have made a considerable mark on network television but have struggled to replicate in the new order of cable and streaming; create another masterwork with acclaim and award wins that feel long overdue.