Watching Good Girls Revolt, the ’70s-set Amazon drama about a women’s strike at a prominent newsweekly, I felt a stack of shoulds weighing me down. I should care about this slice of second-wave activism, no matter how rarefied or esoteric the setting. I should care about the thwarted ambitions of the three women at the center of the show, regardless of the fact that they’re stereotyped by hair color: the sexy, adventurous redhead, Patti (Genevieve Angelson); the snooty, sophisticated blonde, Jane (Anna Camp); and the mousy, dowdy brunette, Cindy (Erin Darke). I should care about the fate of News of the Week (a barely retitled Newsweek), whether its staffers scoop their rivals, and how well the first draft of history gets the years 1969 and 1970 right. I want to care, but the show never gets me there.
Based on the nonfiction book of the same (double-entendre) name, Good Girls Revolt (premiering Friday, October 28) fails to make history feel alive. Even with two real-life figures (Grace Gummer’s Nora Ephron and Joy Bryant’s future congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton) in its cast, the TV version of a culturally and socioeconomically polarized Manhattan is a heap of lazy boomer clichés. Seemingly targeted at viewers who loved Mad Men for Peggy and Joan’s tortured climbs within Sterling Cooper, Revolt misses one crucial detail from the lauded series: The superstar copywriter and head secretary turned junior partner felt like actual people. Patti, Jane, and Cindy, on the other hand, are archetypes: Boho Spice, Ice-Princess Spice, and Frustrated-Novelist Spice.
As any newsroom should be, the Midtown News of the Week office is a spiritual home for idealistic young journalists. As its editor-in-chief, Finn (Chris Diamantopoulos), sees it — and his deputy, Wick (John Belushi), doesn’t — the magazine also stands at a crossroads between the past and the future, between respectability and relevance. It teems, dorm-like, with the competitive relish and horny yearnings of its mostly twentysomething staff. But the mandatory pairing of male reporters and female researchers suffocates the women of the office with a stodgy, dinner-party claustrophobia. As laid out in the pilot, that dynamic is old-fashioned enough to exert fascination, with the researchers doing the legwork, contributing to the writing, providing emotional support to their reporter, and fetching coffee for any man who asks. But getting credit for all the work is a perk reserved for men — until the women decide they’re not going to take it anymore.
Newly hired Nora Ephron — it’s impossible to think of her as simply “Nora,” so little does she belong in this girl-Friday crowd — tolerates being assigned to prop up a dweeb (Teddy Bergman) she creamed in a college debate competition for all of a week. (Her burn-it-down exit is glorious.) Before leaving, she gently scoffs at her fellow females, “It’s like you guys are fighting over the lower bunk bed in jail. ‘Who gets to make the guy writing the story look better?’” But things are more complicated than that: Patti’s reporter (Hunter Parrish) is her boyfriend; Jane’s reporter (Daniel Eric Gold) is probably in love with her; and the unhappily married Cindy thinks the photo editor (Michael Oberholtzer) she writes captions for is the bee’s knees. One of the strikers’ greatest obstacles is the mental hurdle of seeing their friends, boyfriends, and/or allies as the enemy, and Revolt does demonstrate a keen understanding of that tangle of emotions.
Those confused loyalties don’t make the core trio much more interesting, though. Patti, Jane, and Cindy are portrayed as hypercompetent and often more resourceful than their partners, but proficiency doesn’t make for compelling drama. In scene after scene, we see the women handily solving problems the men can’t — a formula that justifies their protest but scarcely makes for complex storytelling. Patti, in particular, becomes irritating for never erring on the wrong side of history, but being right about pretty much every thing to ever exist. That character template finds its apotheosis in this interpretation of Eleanor Holmes Norton, who’s presented as perfect in every possible way, including helping out the white characters. I understand that depictions of black female role models like Holmes Norton are hard to come by, but her character’s lack of flaws — at least in the first seven installments — deny her a relatable humanity. (Two more women of color emerge as recurring characters, but both remain stock figures in the episodes screened for press.) On-the-nose dialogue and expository soundtrack choices, like Diana Ross singing “Someday We’ll Be Together” as a will-they-or-won’t-they couple gaze into each other’s eyes, hobble the character development further.
I do care about ordinary people fighting for justice, and the espionage-lite sequences shoot the occasional jolt of energy into the show. But much of Revolt simply fails to land: The scraps of information that lead to a bigger story, the newsroom battles over which reporter-researcher team gets which assignment, Finn’s troubled marriage. And it gets tiring watching Patti et al. get batted down over and over again, even if as a prelude to an insurrection. Reflexive wincing becomes a part of the viewing experience, as Patti’s best ideas about the Black Panthers are co-opted by her milquetoast boyfriend, Jane’s wealthy parents pressure her to trade her job for a groom, and Cindy’s husband decides he can’t wait the year he’d promised she could work before she “gets serious” and starts popping out their kids. If I wanted to witness nonstop sexism — well, I’m already online all the time.
Even with its less-than-engaging characters and miscalculated story lines, though, Revolt disappoints most with its lack of innovative political vision. It’s never been a better time for feminism on television, with the nichified landscape allowing for myriad concerns and demographics. Whatever your preferred facet of feminism, TV’s probably got a show for you. Women of color have Scandal, Insecure, Jane the Virgin, and Orange Is the New Black; queer women have Orange too, as well as Transparent, Take My Wife, and One Mississippi. There are feminist shows expanding the gendered discourse about body politics (Girls, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer) and sexual violence (Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Hell, we’ve got a superhero drama (Jessica Jones), a musical series (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and at least two meta-comedies (Fleabag and Lady Dynamite) about female mental health.
And so, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with a series centered around mostly affluent white women fighting for equal opportunity, there’s also nothing essential about it, either. Our consciousness has been raised. Good Girls Revolt hasn’t even premiered yet, but TV has already moved beyond it.