Today we celebrate this gem from my Twitter that did not go viral, but has 10 bajillion likes in my heart.
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When The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel hit Amazon Prime, my mother suggested we watch it together. The first season was great, top-notch stuff. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that there was something familiar about it.
“Oh,” I thought. “Oh, it’s basically 1950’s Gilmore Girls.”
Look, is it a carbon copy of Gilmore Girls? Obviously not. (Have you seen those costumes? Incredible.) But even without Rory, there are a lot of similarities between the two. It’s very common for writers to have archetypes that they like to fall into. A great example of this is Ryan Murphy with Glee, American Horror Story, Ratched, and Pose. Only American Crime Story feels different because the characterizations are based on very real people. I mean, some of Elektra Wintour’s dialogue sounds like it could be spoken by Sue Sylvester and it wouldn’t feel out of place.
But again, writers have archetypes and narrative habits that they tend to fall into. Let’s take a look at the Maisel/Gilmore comparison:
Both Gilmore and Maisel love a judgmental parent moment. The stakes have doubled for Maisel since Joel’s parents are entwined with the family through marriage and grandchildren. Although there are justifiable criticisms about the inclusion of the kids, but that’s a problem does not apply to the argument of comparing these to shows. The only connection really is that neither Amy or Dan Palladino have an interest in writing children. Anyway!
Though Emily is sharper in her disapproval of Lorelai, she and Mama Maisel have a habit of putting down their daughters as often as possible. They’re traditional, they don’t understand why women don’t get married or stay married. Not to mention the short subplot of both women separating from their husbands only to go back to the way things were.
Then there are our beloved academic patriarchs. Abe Maisel and Richard Gilmore could spend seven hours in a library reading books not speaking a word to each other. And then they would leave saying, “Nice fellow. We should invite him back.”
Where the shows differ is the focus of the parental relationships. One could argue that the father-daughter storyline in Maisel is more prevalent than the mother-daughter storyline. Gilmore Girls is defined by its generational mother-daughter relationships from Lorelai to Rory and Emily to Lorelai. But you can argue that if you get Tony Shahloub, you do what you can to get as much screentime with him as you can. Because when it comes down to it, the Gilmores and the Maisels have more in common personality-wise than some might care to admit.
In the original pilot of Gilmore Girls, Luke was originally Daisy. That’s right, our favorite grumpy diner owner turned Mr. Gilmore was written as a woman. Network being what it was at the time, WB execs suggested that maybe there was too much estrogen. On top of that, Amy Sherman-Palladino claims that Lorelai’s best friend and chef extraordinaire Sookie was written as a gay woman. On top of that, the actress originally cast as Sookie in the presentation pilot? Alex Borstein herself, the same woman that went on to play Susie in Maisel and win two Emmy’s for it. The actress that replaced Borstein was future comedy superstar Melissa McCarthy–sorry, two-time Academy Award nominee, Melissa McCarthy. And thus the LGBT+ attributes that ASP envisioned was pushed to the side for a love story between her and vegetable farmer, Jackson.
So here’s Susie, aspiring showbiz manager extraordinaire, grumpiness intact and butched up. The banter between Midge and Susie has many commonalities between Lorelai and Luke’s, except now that pesky sexual tension isn’t involved. Although, if you go into the fan community, some might see it differently. If only they would actually let Susie be an out lesbian and explore that side of her character rather than have people misgender her for the sake of a joke.
Plus, who can forget all three characters’ affinity for having headgear at all times. Backward baseball caps, bandanas, newsboy-style flat caps.
I could dedicate a whole essay to the similarities between Midge and Lorelai’s love interests. Although this fictionalized Lenny Bruce has more in common with Jess than Luke, you can’t argue that the similarities between Max Medina and Benjamin Ettenberg and their plotlines are mirror images.
Just like Lorelai can’t quit Christopher, Midge can’t quit Joel. The audience is told over and over again that these two were meant to be. It’s very much a “tell don’t show” vibe, but hey! We’ve all had that one relationship that is impossible to let go of. Especially when those two love-addicted people share a child together.
More importantly, they serve as the obstacle in the love story at the center. For Gilmore, Christopher was the wrench in the Luke and Lorelai ship. In Maisel, the love story isn’t about a will-they-won’t-they between Midge and another man. It’s Midge and her career. Her newfound love of comedy. And having Joel as a mainstay character as opposed to the recurring guest star adds a consistent temptation to Midge opposed to Christopher’s surprise “I’m still in love/can’t stop sleeping with Lorelai” conflicts.
Midge and Lorelei are the same person. You cannot tell me otherwise.
Two fast-talking chicks that are perfect at everything they do, constantly have people falling in love with them, continually fat-shame men and women, and they have hearts of gold. I personally hate this phrase, but it’s true—they are the late 20-something, early 30-something Mary Sue. This is not meant to be derogatory as they phrase has become in recent years. In the basic Mary Sue trope, the lead female character is often the stand-in for the author of a piece and the world revolves around them.
And it’s hard not to see Amy Sherman-Palladino and not think that maybe there’s more of her in Midge and Lorelai than anyone cares to think. Some might think that it’s lazy writing, but from a different perspective, this makes perfect sense. Listen to ASP talk in an interview, and you can hear Lorelai and Midge. There’s a little bit of her other characters too, but underneath the Mardi Gras steampunk top hats, there’s this woman with all of the bravado and grace in the world. And it seems like only in her fiction that she can let a little bit of that out.
That all being said, I’m going to say this: Repeating a story or characters isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
As audiences, we praise those who dare to be different. We find this most often with actors, people willing to change their appearances or take dramatic roles after years of playing comedy. That’s often where people get the idea that varying your creative experiences should be praised. But there’s a comfort in the expected. I love intense dramas that surprise me with how far a character is willing to go. At the same time, I know what to expect from shows like Parks and Recreation, Schitt’s Creek, and Community. And the same goes for Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and yes, even Bunheads.
The more I write for my own projects, the more I realize that this is not necessarily about repeating ideas. Writing what you know isn’t only about writing what you know. It’s about taking what you’ve done before and growing from that. It’s writing what you’ve learned. Has Amy or Dan Palladino learned or changed much? I don’t know. There are definite overlaps, but there are notable differences as well. Like a recipe that they are trying to perfect. And that’s just as valid as George Miller doing Mad Max movies one second and Babe: Pig in the City the next.
1No, I did not watch Season Six or Seven because I heard about the “Luke has a secret child” storyline, my least favorite trope of all time. It’s not you, child actors, I promise.
Hamilton hit at just the right time. Originally promised for a 2021 release, Disney+ released it a full year early as the pandemic shut down multiple offices and Broadway theatres. The wave that Hamilton first experienced returned, Twitter and TikTok and other social media accounts flooded with commentary and tears of joy. Then the question became “Why doesn’t Broadway do this all the time?”
With the strike of COVID-19, there was suddenly availability to stream professionally filmed shows. National Theatre Live spent weeks raising funds by streaming some of their productions on YouTube, leaving each show up for a week before replacing it. What’s On Stage did the same thing, albeit with a shorter availability time that consisted of a weekend. Some local theatres have had to get creative and perform plays on Zoom, search through their archives to share performances from years past.
But the truth is that filmed theatre has always been here. It’s just She Loves Me and not Beetlejuice.
And then there’s the underground of filmed theatre that we dare not speak of.
My theatre education came from pro-shots that I would check out from the library. It was my introduction to Stephen Sondheim, a man that I consider one of my last great artistic influences as I transitioned from childhood into adulthood. In the eighth grade, I knelt in front of my television rapt in the concert production of Sweeney Todd. The tile floor was harsh on my knees, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from George Hearn and Patti LuPone. I sought out Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion, and then onto other composers. The 10th Anniversary concert of Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, even CATS.
But eventually I ran out of material. Otherwise I had to spend my time relying on my imagination, listening to cast albums as I scripted the action in my head. I listened to Wicked, wondering what it would look like on stage, thinking of the dramatic build on a popular story.
Then one day, during my college years, someone had uploaded multiple videos of the Original Broadway Cast. Whatever homework I had, I abandoned. I spent my afternoon clicking through parts one and two and three and onward.
Did I like the show after all? No. Did most of the video look blurry and distant with some of the words muffled. Yes. But I got to see Wicked!
And then I learned that bootlegs were illegal. And I felt guilty. But what was I supposed to do? More and more musicals were being released by the year, and I didn’t have the money to travel to New York and buy a $300 ticket for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
So why aren’t pro-shots done more often? Money.
This is why it’s easier to sell the right to Hollywood. Now, theatre fans have very strong opinions on film adaptations, especially when they are so attached to performances that already exist on cast albums. Why not just film it? Optioning a play or musical to Hollywood is how a lot of playwrights and producers get paid. And it’s a risk they are taking for more people to discover their work. Alan Moore complains about how he hates adaptations of his comics, but he still sells the rights to them. Creative types have to earn a living so that they can produce more artistically fulfilling work. Andrew Lloyd Weber has both pro-shots and Hollywood versions of his works. The pro-shots are arguably more beloved than any of the movie adaptations, but he’s all the richer for it.
The negative aspect of Hollywood adaptations is that, often, brilliant performances are lost. Even Bob Fosse was planning on a Chicago adaptation with Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minelli instead of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. Not to mention the decades filled with a fan base campaigning for Michael Crawford to reprise his titular role in The Phantom of the Opera. But Hollywood operates on a massive scale. It’s business, they need to make money and a return on their investment. Even in the world of theatre, this is how it works. It’s the same reason we now have a Music Man revival in the works with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.
Money makes the world go ’round, the world go ’round, the world go ’round…
Let’s imagine a world with more pro-shot opportunities. Keeping some cost-effective measures in mind, but focusing more on an ideal world. This is the closest I’m ever going to come to Shark Tank.
What can we learn from bootlegs?
Bootlegs and Zoom performances have proven that it’s not the quality of the video that is important. Multiple bootlegs are filmed on small digital cameras or iPhones, jostling back and forth when the person filming either applauds or has to hide their camera for a brief time. Patti LuPone would be very upset that this is how her Mama Rose was immortalized. Actually, a bootleg is how that infamous audio clip of her berating a photographer during the last week of her run in Gypsy was discovered. And that photographer was from the New York Times that was given permission to photograph her last moments. How the turn tables…
Fans of the theatre know that filming stage works are difficult. A simple camera set up is enough to tide them over just so they can have the chance to see Broadway performers in the roles the originated. Just two or three is all they need. If you look at the way National Theatre or PBS films their live productions, they have just enough to get the coverage that they need. But again, one lone individual with a Robin Hood mentality gets thousands of views on YouTube for one continuous shot with iPhone 8 before it’s taken down for copyright infringement.
BroadwayHD is America’s primary streaming resource for filmed productions of musicals and stage plays. But in its early days, it comprised mostly of stage productions filmed by the BBC. Again, pro-shots have always been here. It’s just that England was on top of it before we were and for longer. Digital Theatre continues to have their filmed productions available for both rent and purchase. National Theatre Live will schedule events with theatres so that they can use satellite to stream previously recorded shows like the 2016 revival of Angels in America or the original stage version of Fleabag.
The question then becomes whether it suits producers and creators best to have their productions available for rent or purchase, or have them as scheduled events in the same way as National Theatre. With the surge of video-on-demand due to the pandemic, there’s an opportunity for theatre fans to pay $20-$30 to have access to a show for one or two days in the comfort of their own home. There’s also an opportunity for a discounted package for educators.
I hate to say this about bootlegs, but the people uploading them are clever. To get small monetary advantages from what is already stealing, they allow YouTube to intersperse advertising throughout their poorly shot video. (I would like to reiterate that I don’t condone this, but if you’re going to be the Gus Fring of theatre bootlegs, I can’t deny that it’s smart.)
If a show is being performed live, there would have to be an intermission. Those in the theatre would be able to sit in long lines for the bathroom, pay for another plastic cup of $20 house red wine. At home? That’s fifteen minutes worth of advertising space. One could argue that no one would sit through fifteen minutes of advertising. You’re right, but it could play in the background while the person at home got their own wine, went to the bathroom, got a snack, and update their social media about what they were watching. Hamliton had one-minute intermission that you could pause. From personal experience, I did not pause it–I ran around doing as much as I could in 60 seconds.
Also, have you ever had insomnia? Fifteen to twenty minutes worth of ads is nothing like watching QVC into the wee hours of the morning. Plus, PBS has already operated on this model for years to raise funds for their programming. Hell, people watch the Super Bowl just for the advertising.
The primary argument that has existed for the continuance of bootlegs has been accessibility. Yes, there are national tours. Yes, a trip to NYC is often an opportunity for middle school and high school students to see shows as a part of an extracurricular activity. But there are people of all walks of life that can’t access theatre for whatever reason. In my own case, I grew up in a small Texas town and my family didn’t have the money to pay for those school trips. I was able to see Beauty and the Beast and Phantom, but what I really wanted was to see Urinetown or In the Heights.
The truth is that it was only able to do so because it became such a phenomenon. Those performances and the work of lighting designers and wardrobe assistants are preserved on film for Disney+. Compare that to In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical that spend 10 years in development hell in the Hollywood system. That first collaboration between Miranda, Thomas Kail, Alex Lacamoire, and Andy Blankenbeuhler is only preserved on a stranger’s shaky camera that is occasionally posted on Vimeo, Dailymotion, and YouTube.
As theatres across the globe have been shut down, it’s time to re-examine how theatres can continue to thrive. If it has to be a business that capitalizes on its audience, then it has to think of young kids in hours away from the big city. They already bought the cast album, they purchased a poster online, they have fanfic with 18 kudos on AO3. Let them have access to the thing they love most.
I used to love the phrase “strong female character.” I knew what it meant. I knew what I was looking for. Someone who wasn’t just the damsel in distress, could take charge in a battle just as much as the boys, and had a personality that was complex and not just focused on love. To be honest, I wanted another Meg from Disney’s Hercules. Queen Sass Monster.
Then Hollywood started creating strong female characters. As in literal strong female characters. Like, she knows how to handle machine guns but also runs in high heels.
So I shifted my phrasing to “complicated female characters.” This time I clarified it a little bit more to really focus on the complexities of psychology and moral centers. And now in the Year of Our Lorde 2020, we are seeing unhinged female characters. Which is… close? Ish? A for effort?
Full disclosure, I will not be looking at shows labeled as comedies, even though Fleabag and Insecure are great examples of complex and well-rounded women. If the culture and marketing department are going to tout a project as “prestige TV,” it will be analyzed with a critical eye.
If you look at the roster of films, TV dramas, and genre media at our disposal, you will come across a lot of unhinged women. Olivia Colman won an Oscar for The Favourite, beating out Glenn Close for what many assumed would be a long overdue win. The line of actresses nominated for Emmy Awards this year ranged from portrayals of young drug addicts (Euphoria) to news broadcasters experiencing sexual misconduct (The Morning Show). Even Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender is a sound frequently used by TikTok users. “My own mother called me a monster… she was right, of course, but it still hurt!”
All of these women have amazing performers and writers behind them, but they all have one thing in common: they are all on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Or they just have a nervous breakdown and need to be locked up. (Again, props to my girl Azula.) This appears to be the natural progression of the evolution of the “strong female character” concept that was introduced more than 25 years ago with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then again, it’s not like these characters haven’t existed before. Go back more than 400 years, and Shakespeare has a slew of interesting and flawed women in his plays from Viola to Tamora. Lady Macbeth herself laid the groundwork for the unhinged woman.
So how does it happen?
There’s a narrative balancing act when developing a TV series. It’s easier to focus on the protagonist going through on their worst day: Tony Soprano having a panic attack, Walter White’s cancer diagnosis, Piper Chapman being sentenced to 15 months in prison. All pretty shitty days. And this makes an easier transition into typically unhinged behavior. (My personal favorite is “F*ck you and your eyebrows” from Breaking Bad. Please put it on a coffee mug for me.)
So what about the supporting characters around them? The women especially have a harder time if it’s a primarily male heavy cast. Again, there’s an ease in predictability: they get pregnant, they breakup with their boyfriends or spouses, they marry an abuser, they’re revealed to be a psychopathic murderer, they’re raped or fridged. Game of Thrones checks off many items of this list. It’s unfortunate that the main cause for developing complicated women characters and their growth often involves violence of some kind or a Shyamalan type twist where they were evil all along.
What it seems to come down to is that “strong” and “complicated” has become synonymous with one extreme of the other. Eventually morals and emotions erode away into a calm and confident demeanor. Or their emotions get the best of them. Characters reflect a patriarchal ideal of strength, or the nightmare of insanity.
But again, we’re getting much better about writing compelling characters that aren’t cisgender men.
The perfect example of this? Kim Wexler.
It’s not that she’s the perfect woman who has been wronged and becomes reckless. She represses her emotions without being devoid of them. She develops a Robin Hood complex over the course of the series because of her intense desire to see the law work for her pro bono clients. As her character developed from supporting character to a full-fledged protagonist of Better Call Saul, Kim Wexler has been lauded as one of the best characters in TV history.
Media produced between 2015 and 2020 will most likely pave the way for better character development. More than ever, women are not just handling military-grade weapons or having an award-worthy meltdown that makes audiences cry. They finally being depicted as flawed human beings that are capable of anything.