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Amazon’s “democratic” TV development process may have a sexist loophole

Amazon has never ordered a show straight to series from a woman. Why?

Crisis in Six Scenes
Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes got greenlit before he even had an idea for a show

On paper, it seems pretty reasonable that Amazon Studios asked Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to produce a pilot episode of her new show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, before handing over a full-series order. Pilots are a standard part of the TV development process, and Amazon loves to emphasize how it’s the only network in the business that asks for public feedback on the shows it’s considering before it goes ahead and produces a whole season of TV.

But Amazon has also handed plenty of series to established Hollywood names — including Woody Allen and Mad Men creator Matt Weiner — without ever seeing a second of footage. It’s also done so for men who’ve never really worked in TV before, such as Allen, Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn, and The Hunger Games co-writer Billy Ray.

With that context, asking Sherman-Palladino to make a pilot for Mrs. Maisel starts to feel a little less routine and a little more sexist.

Sherman-Palladino is a seasoned showrunner with a distinctive style and a well-established fan base. Why wouldn’t Amazon try to lock her in as part of its team of talented creators, when the company has done the same for men who didn’t even have a pitch?

Amazon requires most of its showrunners to go through a typical pilot process — but not all of them

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Press Room
Award-winning showrunner Jill Soloway has gone through Amazon’s pilot process twice.
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Amazon develops many of its TV shows via its Pilot Season program: Twice a year, the company produces several pilots and makes them available for public viewing. Then it decides which ones to pick up based in part on viewer feedback (though the final call will always come from the top, and some critics have suggested the process is more for show than anything else). Since its launch in 2013, the program has produced some popular and/or critically acclaimed shows, including The Man in the High Castle (2015), Diablo Cody’s One Mississippi, and Jill Soloway’s award-winning Transparent (2013, via Amazon’s first iteration of the Pilot Season program).

But Amazon has also allowed select series creators — from Allen and Weiner to Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell and Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley — to skip the pilot season process altogether, ordering series from them sight unseen. This kind of “straight-to-series” order is relatively rare in the TV industry, but sometimes a person’s past works and recognizable name are all a network needs to say, “We trust you — no pilot presentation necessary.”

What’s weird in this case is that, like Weiner and Kelley, Sherman-Palladino is an experienced TV creator with a distinctive style and devoted fans — and unlike Allen and Russell, who had never created TV shows before Amazon hired them, she’s launched a hugely successful series in the past.

Gilmore Girls — a low-key show about a mother and daughter who live in a small New England town — ran for seven seasons from 2000 to 2007 and developed a rabid fan following. It remains so beloved that Netflix ordered a four-part revival of the series nearly a decade after it ended, and the project was one of the most highly anticipated TV series of 2016. Just this week, reports that there could be another round of Gilmore Girls sparked a whole news cycle of speculation and debates about the show and who Rory should end up with (#TeamJess).

As is true for most showrunners, not every series Sherman-Palladino has worked on became a hit. Her first show after Gilmore Girls, the 2008 comedy The Return of Jezebel James, was quickly canceled. And her 2012 small-town dance dramedy Bunheads — while warmly received by former Gilmore Girls fans — wasn’t a huge ratings hit for ABC Family and only lasted one season.

But it’s hard to fathom that Amazon wouldn’t want to work with Sherman-Palladino based on her recent Gilmore Girls momentum alone. The network has often awarded shows to men whose followings only occasionally reach the dedicated fever pitch of Gilmore Girls fanatics (not to mention that their fans skew more male than Sherman-Palladino’s), and whose résumés contain plenty of dull or failed projects among the hits.

In fact, when the studio ordered a series from Allen in 2015, he didn’t even have a concept yet. “I don’t know how I got into this,” he said at the time. “I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin.”

That much became especially obvious once Amazon released Allen’s scattershot series Crisis in Six Scenes last September. But it’s also a pretty stark example of just how little Amazon cared about whether Allen was any good at making TV. (Amazon has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)

Amazon’s spotty record with women creators makes more sense within the context of Hollywood’s spotty record with women creators in general

Looking at this disparity between Sherman-Palladino’s experience and those of her male colleagues, there are a couple of behind-the-scenes moving parts to consider.

First, there’s the reported behind-the-scenes drama that unfolded in December when Amazon abruptly canceled its freshman drama Good Girls Revolt. Created by Dana Calvo, the perfectly decent 1960s period piece about women journalists trying to achieve equal pay was canceled only five weeks after its first season dropped on Amazon. There could be many reasons the show was canceled, but according to Calvo, there were no women involved in the decision.

And if you look at Amazon’s programming slate, the presence of female show creators such as Soloway and Cody are an exception rather than the rule. (Don’t be fooled by Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag; both shows are British comedies that Amazon imported rather than produced itself.) Even after achieving so much with Transparent, Soloway had to put her new show I Love Dick through Amazon’s pilot season.

So despite the appearance that Soloway’s fiery “topple the patriarchy” speeches at the 2016 Emmys might signify, Amazon isn’t exactly brimming with women at its highest decision-making levels. (Amazon’s major players in series decisions are studio head Roy Price and head of half-hour and drama series development Joe Lewis.)

Then there’s the broader problem of women directors and writers having to prove themselves over and over again no matter how successful their past projects might have been. There’s even a term for it: Former LA Times writer Rebecca Keegan coined the phrase “Ishtar effect” in 2015 to describe this phenomenon after comedy writer Elaine May directed the notorious 1987 flop Ishtar and never directed again. Her co-producers Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman — who had a say in the final cut of Ishtar along with May — continued on their merry ways to lengthy careers in producing and acting alike.

It’s an unavoidable fact that women who helm even a single lackluster project are far more often dismissed than men who do, no matter what the rest of their track record looks like. So while Sherman-Palladino created a TV show that became a bona fide phenomenon, the relative failures of Jezebel James and Bunheads may have negated her success in executives’ minds.

It’s plenty likely that Amazon just wanted to get a closer look at The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a potentially ambitious comedy about a 1950s New York housewife learning how to do standup comedy. But the fact that Sherman-Palladino has to prove her worth when male showrunners with similarly spotty records — or no TV records at all — get free passes to do whatever the hell they want is, at the very least, worthy of a skeptical eyebrow raise.