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November 29, 2022

Breaking Down The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Into Three Acts

Today, we’re going to be looking at the pilot episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a fantastic script that shows exactly how to structure your pilot.

Before your TV show gets made, chances are you’ll only get a chance to write a TV pilot to impress the gatekeepers of the TV industry. Therefore you need to be sure it’s the best it possibly can be. 

A pilot script needs to introduce all the main characters of a show, the main premise, the themes, the world, and the kinds of conflicts we can expect to see throughout.

Does The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel deliver on this? Let’s dive in. 

What is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel about? 

The eponymous Mrs. Maisel is a diligent, wise-cracking, and hard-done-by Jewish housewife in the late 1950s. After her dream husband leaves her, she embarks on a discovery of self-discovery and fulfillment as she chases her talent and dream of stand-up comedy, a rarity for women at the time. 

Mrs Maisel and Susie in the audience of a comedy event.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is set in the 1950s and examines themes of gender roles and female empowerment using comedy.

As that premise might suggest, there are a lot of really interesting themes the show explores, primarily gender roles in the post-war war era.

Now we’ve examined the themes let’s look at some of the cast of characters in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The characters in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel 

Let's take a look at the cast and characters in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan)

A woman in her late 20s/early 30s, Miriam is clearly charismatic, talented, and a natural wisecracker. However, she is emblematic of her time. She desires little more than the expectations put upon women in this time period. When cracks show in her marriage, Miriam begins to discover a side of herself she didn’t know existed.

Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) 

Susie is the hard-nosed sometimes barkeep sometimes manager of The Gaslight, a dumpy bar in The Village in Manhattan that plays host to a variety of mediocre acts. She’s gruff, determined, and unbothered by the niceties associated with her gender with a clear nose for talent.

Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen) 

Joel is the dreamboat and adored husband of Miriam who is in a well-paying job, but moonlights as an amateur comedian. His stuff is pretty placid and he is blind and unappreciative of the work Miriam does on his behalf. Oh, and he’s also having an affair. Not a great guy alround. 

While there are plenty of other characters in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel who flit in and out of the episode, these central three are the pillar upon which everything else is built. 

Pilot breakdown

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel utilizes a classic three-act structure. Let’s break this down.

Mrs Maisel dressed in a black dress and holding the mic at a event full of people.
Miriam, the protagonist, is clearly charismatic and talented comedian.

Act one


The pilot opens during the wedding of Miriam to Joel where she is giving her own toast, telling us a lot about her charismatic nature. 

Miriam tells the story of how she met Joel. She also gives us subtle clues about the constraints society puts on her ambition as a woman. During this monologue we also see Joel bring Miriam to a seedy strip club. Here they see real-life stand-up Lenny Bruce perform, presumably early in his career. Both Miriam and Joel respond positively to Bruce, and comedy becomes a way that the two bond. 


This pilot is one of the few incidents where there is no major inciting incident, at least in this part of the episode. This works because, in a way, this entire episode is an inciting episode for the series as a whole.

Instead of an inciting incident, we get to know our place in this world. It’s four years after the wedding and we see Miriam excited about the rabbi coming to their home for the upcoming Yom Kippur. 

She’s picking up a brisket that she cooks to perfection while on the phone to Joel at the office. Heis anxious about his upcoming performance. It turns out he’s moonlighting as an amateur comedian, and Miriam is very supportive of his goals. 

Later that night, Miriam shows up at Joel’s office and accompanies him to The Gaslight, a seedy bar in The Village. Joel’s complaining that his timeslot isn’t good, but Miriam is confident she can change it. 

Still holding the cooked brisket, she brings it to the stage manager that night who’s easily bribed by the good food and gives Joel a better slot. Susie, who mans the bar behind Miriam, is clearly disgusted at the behavior, but we’re not 100% sure why.

With Miriam’s help, Joel has secured a better slot. He does a good set where he tells a good joke about Abraham Lincoln. On the way home, we see that Miriam was taking notes on the performance, what got laughs and what didn’t. She’s got a knack for the art. This is the routine.

Act two

Promise of the premise

Now we get to see Miriam’s day from the beginning, strangely starting by waking up twice during the night to attend to her make-up and hair. She’s trying to keep herself beautiful without Joel noticing, which he doesn’t. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t realize that Miriam has already been awake for some time, by Miriam’s design. 

This is one of those things that Miriam feels she has to do as a woman. 

As Joel goes to work, Miriam visits her family’s apartment and talks with her kids. We see a lot of the misogynistic behavior has come from her family, with her father barely uttering a word to her, and her mother only talking about beauty, slimming, and whether Miriam’s newborn daughter will be ugly or not. 

The family criticizes Joel for the comedy, but Miriam defends him saying they both enjoy it. 


That night, Miriam is watching TV and sees famous comedian Bob Newhart do the exact same Abe Lincoln joke that Joel did last night on national TV. She’s furious that Newhart somehow stole the joke and tells Joel, but Joel nonchalantly confesses that he “borrowed” the joke from a Bob Newhart record. Miriam is clearly a little disappointed, assuming her husband had written the joke himself, but she chalks it up to her not knowing the comedy world as well as her husband and lets it slip. 


The following day Joel is nervous about his comedy set that night and rings Miriam. She says that he wasn’t able to get down to The Gaslight to book a slot for that night. He’s upset, and Miriam tries to soothe him, saying she will sort it out. 

However, she’s busy with children and housekeeping and she picks up Joel late from work which he’s very annoyed about. The sweater Miriam brought for Joel has a few holes in it. Miriam suggests that Joel make a joke about it on stage. Joel’s upset, but carries on and meets some friends in the bar that night. 

Eager to make her husband happy, Miriam goes to the bar to bribe the manager for a good timeslot for Joel, but the manager is gone, leaving only the surly Susie. Miriam tries the normal sweet-talking on Susie, but it has no effect, and Susie says she’ll fit in Joel at some point. Returning to the table, Joel’s pissed off that Miriam couldn’t get a better slot. 

When Joel finally does get on stage the set is a disaster. He tries to improvise a joke about his sweater but he clearly doesn’t have the talent to do it, and he fumbles over his stolen Abe Lincoln joke that doesn’t get any laughs.

Darkest moment

Miriam and Joel head home in sullen silence. They’re about to go to bed, but Joel packs up his bags and says he’s leaving Miriam. It turns out he’s having an affair, and he feels constrained by his life. In addition, he uncovers that Miriam didn’t realize he wanted to be a professional comedian one day and he feels hurt, leaving in a huff. 

This is a disaster for Miriam, because as a “good woman” her husband leaving her is a failure on her part. She tells her family what happened and they blame her for Joel leaving. Miriam doesn’t quite know how to express the anger she’s feeling, so she gets drunk and heads out to town.

Act three


Purposefully or not, she ends up at the Gaslight. She enters, and drunkenly saunters up onto the stage, and talks about her problems. Like a natural, she grabs the audience’s attention and turns the pain of that night into a great comedy set. She gets so carried away that in an exaggerated joke she flashes the audience which gets a big response, but the police see her do it and arrest her. 

Susie bails Miriam out because she watched the set and believes that Miriam has untapped talent. Susie says that Miriam should become a professional comedian. Miriam dismisses the idea outright, saying that she is a mother, and heads home. However, on the way home, she starts to seriously consider the offer. 

Closing image

As it turns out, Lenny Bruce has been arrested. Miriam goes to the police station and bails him out so.

She can ask him whether he loves comedy. Lenny gives a few snarky comedic answers before giving a shrug and leaving. However, Miriam reads him loud and clear. He loves comedy, and though she doesn’t say it, we see Miriam believe that maybe the following comedy is her way to rediscover herself after her husband’s departure. 

What can we learn from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Pilot?

This pilot is a funny, well-constructed, thematically punchy episode of TV series using a three-act structure. It perfectly sets up the conflict of the wider series. It also tells a compelling contained story in its own right.

If you’re writing a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, be sure to study this pilot thoroughly. 

Whether you’re a student or an industry legend, don’t forget to download Arc Studio today to see you through from the first draft to pitching to Netflix.


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Breaking Down The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Into Three Acts
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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