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

Margaret Qualley plays a single mother living below the poverty line in the Netflix series <em>Maid.</em>
Ricardo Hubbs
Margaret Qualley plays a single mother living below the poverty line in the Netflix series Maid.

In her 2019 memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive, Stephanie Landwrites 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 is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.