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'Maid' is an unflinching portrait of a single mom's will to survive

Oct 1, 2021

In her 2019 memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive, Stephanie Land writes candidly about trying to raise her young daughter while working as a maid for hire. Now, a new 10-episode Netflix adaptation brings Land's story to TV.

Most TV dramas adapted from books are identified in the opening credits as "based on," but Maid is called "inspired by," and there's a lot of new, fictional material added to the mix. This includes some new characters, and some changing of actual locations and events. But Land is on record approving of the TV show's approach — and the creative team has done a great job making this story both captivating and relatable.

Maid's executive producers include actress Margot Robbie and veteran TV writer-producer John Wells, whose credits include China Beach, ER and The West Wing. Wells also was a writer and director on Shameless, the recently concluded, excellent Showtime series about a family struggling to make ends meet.

Molly Smith Metzler, another writer on Shameless, is the creator Maid. She wrote many of the Maid episodes, Wells directed four of them, and together they've crafted a story that's told entirely from one point of view – with misunderstandings, missing information and flashes of fantasy all as part of the mix.

Maid is the story of Alex, a young woman who, in the opening scene, wakes up in the middle of the night, sneaks out of bed where her husband Sean is sleeping, and carries their 2-year-old daughter, Maddie, to the car, preparing to drive off. We don't know where she's headed, and neither does she.

Alex (played by Margaret Qualley) has few options at the moment, and even less money. She starts out with access to only $18, and we see that amount dwindle on screen with every purchase of another gallon of gas or dollar-store toy for Maddie.

Eventually Alex gets a shot at an interview for a job working as a maid-for-hire at a daily cleaning service. But to land that job, she has to find someone to watch her daughter. And with no money to pay a sitter, her only choice is a risky one: Her own mother, a free-spirited artist with wild sculptures and paintings, wild hair, and wild, manic eyes. She's played by Andie MacDowell, who dives into playing her manic-depressive character with all the fire and energy it requires.

Qualley played dancer Ann Reinking in the FX limited series Fosse/Verdon, but that was a glamorous supporting role. Her Alex is a central starring role: Maid is Alex's journey every step of the way. We never know what's happening, or who's doing what, until Alex does. She keeps confronting crises, making decisions, and battling red tape and family members to move forward.

Maid's supporting cast is deep and strong, but in the first few episodes, the best scenes are between Alex and her mom. And it's worth noting — though I didn't know it until afterward — that MacDowell and Qualley are mother and daughter in real life.

As to Alex's life, Maid never leaves her narrative or her perspective. Instead, the TV show finds very inventive ways to help us empathize with her point of view. The most dramatic thing that happens in the first episode occurs off camera, because Alex is too far away to see it, and we hear only the sound, as does she.

Later, when she's in court, fighting for custody of her daughter, all the words the attorneys and judges throw back and forth devolve into what she hears — and we hear — only as the repeated phrase "legal legal legal." And as she flips through the endless forms she has to fill out for job and financial assistance applications, the words on the pages — to her eyes, and to ours — get more personal, more pessimistic and a lot more rude.

Any description of Maid threatens to sound unremittingly bleak, but it's not. In the moments of joy that surface, the small victories, the unexpected showings of support, the real message of Maid is that each one of those small acts of kindness is indeed what can keep Alex going. And, really, any of us.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today, Netflix launches a new drama series called "Maid," inspired by the bestselling memoir by Stephanie Land called "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, And A Mother's Will To Survive." In it, Land wrote candidly about her years living below the poverty line, trying to raise her young daughter while working as a maid for hire.

Most TV dramas adapted from books are identified in the opening credits as based on. But this new 10-episode Netflix version is called inspired by, and there's a lot of new fictional material added to the mix. This includes some new characters and some changing of actual locations and events. But the original author, whose life experiences are at the center of "Maid," is on record approving of the TV show's approach. And the creative team has done a great job making this story both captivating and relatable.

The executive producers include actress Margot Robbie and veteran TV writer-producer John Wells, whose credits include "China Beach," "ER" and "The West Wing." He also was a writer and director on "Shameless," the recently concluded excellent Showtime series about a family struggling to make ends meet. Another writer on that series was Molly Smith Metzler, who is the creator of this new "Maid" series for Netflix. She wrote many of the episodes of "Maid." Wells directed four of them. And together, they've crafted a story that's told entirely from one point of view with misunderstandings, missing information and flashes of fantasy all as part of the mix.

"Maid" is the story of Alex, a young woman who, in the opening scene, wakes up in the middle of the night, sneaks out of bed where her husband Sean is sleeping and carries their 2-year-old daughter Maddie to the car, preparing to drive off? Where? We don't know, and neither does she. But before long, Alex, who's played by Margaret Qualley, ends up at the office of a social worker. She's looking for help and some leads on possible employment. But what she gets first are a series of questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAID")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you the child's legal guardian?

MARGARET QUALLEY: (As Alex) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Can you prove that?

QUALLEY: (As Alex) I could show you my stretch marks.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you currently under the influence of any drugs or alcohol?

QUALLEY: (As Alex) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you sure? Because you look strung out.

QUALLEY: (As Alex) Nope. We slept in the car last night. So...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So you're homeless?

QUALLEY: (As Alex) No. No. I wouldn't say that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So you have a home?

QUALLEY: (As Alex) I had a home. And then we left it.

BIANCULLI: Alex has few options at the moment and even less money. She starts out with access to only $18. And we see that amount dwindle on screen with every purchase of another gallon of gas or a dollar store toy for Maddy. Eventually, Alex does get a shot at a job interview to work as a maid for hire at a daily cleaning service. But to land that job, she has to find someone to watch her daughter. And with no money to pay a sitter, her only choice is a risky one, her own mother, a free-spirited artist with wild sculptures and paintings, wild hair and wild, manic eyes. She's played by Andie MacDowell, who dives into playing her manic-depressive character with all the fire and energy it requires.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAID")

QUALLEY: (As Alex) Hi, mom.

ANDIE MACDOWELL: (As Paula) Ah, Maddy, Alex, (laughter) this is so exciting. I can't believe you came to see this. This is what all the brilliant painters and sculptors are doing in the art world right now. This is me stepping up to a global collective of minds...

QUALLEY: (As Alex) Hey, mom...

MACDOWELL: (As Paula) Archetypes. You know about archetypes.

QUALLEY: (As Alex) Hey...

MACDOWELL: (As Paula) That's what I'm representing here in cobalt, the hero, the everyman, the mentor, the mystic.

QUALLEY: (As Alex) Mom.

MACDOWELL: (As Paula) The lover. Then, of course, there's Jungian archetypes. And it's like what...

QUALLEY: (As Alex) Why didn't you tell me that you Airbnb'd (ph) your house?

MACDOWELL: (As Paula) I did, didn't I?

QUALLEY: (As Alex) I just drove around to two campgrounds looking for you.

MACDOWELL: (As Paula) Well, honey, if you don't check in with me from time to time, that's on you.

QUALLEY: (As Alex) I called you 14 times.

BIANCULLI: Margaret Qualley played dancer Ann Reinking in the FX limited series "Fosse/Verdon." But that was a glamorous supporting role. Her Alex in "Maid" is a central starring role. It's Alex's journey every step of the way. We never know what's happening or who's doing what until Alex does. She keeps confronting crises, making decisions and moving forward, battling red tape and family members. The supporting cast is deep and strong. But in the first few episodes, the best scenes are between Alex and her mom. And it's worth noting, though, I didn't know it until afterward, that Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley are mother and daughter in real life.

As to Alex's life as depicted in "Maid," we never once leave her narrative or her perspective. And the TV show finds very inventive ways to help us empathize with her point of view. The most dramatic thing that happens in the first episode occurs off camera because Alex is too far away to see it. And we hear only the sound, as does she. Later, when she's in court fighting for custody of her daughter, all the words the attorneys and judges throw back and forth devolve into what she hears, and we hear, only as the repeated phrase, legal, legal, legal. And as she flips through the endless sheets of forms she has to fill out for job and financial assistance applications, the words on the pages, to her eyes and to ours, get more personal, more pessimistic and a lot more rude.

Any description of "Maid" threatens to sound unremittingly bleak, but it's not. And the moments of joy that surface, the small victories, the unexpected showings of support - the real message of "Maid" is that each one of those small acts of kindness is, indeed, what can keep Alex going and, really, any of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "HAUPE")

BIANCULLI: Monday on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about film noir - movies about doomed characters, sexual heat, ill-fated romance, schemers, crimes and double crosses, movies that often are filmed in shadows as dark as their stories. Our guest will be Eddie Muller, host of the Turner Classic Movies show "Noir Alley" and author of a new expanded edition of his book "Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir." Some noir classics are set in the boxing world, a world Muller came to know through his father, who was considered the dean of West Coast boxing writers. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "HAUPE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Today's show was produced by Roberta Shorrock and Seth Kelley. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Julian Herzfeld and Joyce Lieberman. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "HAUPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.