Let’s get this out of the way: Good Girls Revolt isn’t Mad Men, for better and for worse.
That’s the comparison Amazon desperately wants me to make regarding its newest drama, which takes place in 1969 and centers on the New York City newsroom of a fictionalized Newsweek magazine.
Good Girls Revolt isn’t nearly as thoughtful or meticulously plotted as AMC’s lauded show. When it tries to be titillating — sexism is bad, but workplace sex is fun! — it feels more like a shadow of Don Draper’s workplace exploits than a new story told from a distinctive point of view.
But when Good Girls Revolt quits worrying about its predecessor and focuses on its core premise, about working women fighting for the credit they deserve, it can be great. The 10-episode first season is at its best when it lets its talented actors dig into their characters’ frustrations, hopes, dreams, and all the other emotions that come with being a tenacious reporter on the edge of breaking a story.
The problem is that Good Girls Revolt is ostensibly about the women of News of the Week magazine — the show’s Newsweek facsimile, though Newsweek itself confusingly also exists in Good Girls Revolt’s version of the world — suing the magazine for gender discrimination. It’s a juicy premise, made even more interesting by the fact that it’s based on a true story, as recounted in journalist Lynn Povich’s book about living through that exact same scenario.
But the series — created by Narcos executive producer Dana Calvo — only sometimes remembers that this lawsuit should be its backbone, the driving force that keeps the story moving. While some plots and characters find much more fascinating footholds than others throughout season one, the most compelling moments rarely have anything to do with the supposedly central storyline.
Even if the show’s lawsuit plot gets lost, its three stars are fantastic
The pilot of Good Girls Revolt does a good job of setting the scene for why the women decide to sue in the first place, even if the gender discrimination lawsuit that inspired the series isn’t even mentioned as a possibility until episode two. (This series is happy to take its time.)
See, at News of the Week, female researchers and copyeditors sit in “the pit,” while the magazine’s reporters — all male — shoot the shit on a literal raised platform above them. Under the watchful eye of editor-in-chief slash Don Draper surrogate Finn Woodhouse (Chris Diamantopoulos), each female researcher works with a specific male reporter to help him write his articles, and no matter how much the women contribute, there will only ever be one byline on the article — the man’s.
It’s an infuriating situation, and a terribly difficult one for the women to navigate while still trying to keep their jobs. So they start meeting in secret — or just in the ladies’ room — to brainstorm how, exactly, they can get the credit they’re owed without upending everything they know.
The formation of the lawsuit itself is only a glancing priority for the first half of season one, which can make the series feel frustratingly slow. But while it simmers in the background, Good Girls Revolt concentrates on its trio of female leads, who shine in their portrayals of the researchers’ fight to be taken seriously.
Jane (Anna Camp) is a society girl who decided to “waste some time” (air quotes mine) in a newsroom before her inevitable engagement to a rich lawyer. Much to her surprise, though, Jane realizes she’s not only a natural at reporting, but loves it, too.
Camp is typically a bright spot of everything she appears in, whether she’s vamping as a pious reverend’s wife on True Blood or quietly simmering as an Upper West Side mom on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The same is true on Good Girls Revolt, where Camp brings sporadic moments of clarity to the show with her portrayal of Jane’s tenacity, hesitation, and partnership with Sam (Daniel Eric Gold), her earnest other-half reporter.
Patty (Genevieve Angelson) is a free-love vinyl enthusiast who desperately wants to start a revolution, so she might as well get to work sparking an internal rebellion from her desk. (Her inspiration? Nora Ephron, who really did quit Newsweek in the 1960s, and is played on Good Girls Revolt with dry wit — and a frumpy wig — by Grace Gummer.)
Angelson is great in the role, her Patty fiercely committed to everything she tries, from her work as a journalist to a romantic relationship with her prepster reporter partner, Doug (Weeds’ Hunter Parrish). Still, she always has an eye on the future and one foot out the door, just in case.
But the real breakout star of Good Girls Revolt is Erin Darke as Cindy, a seemingly mild-mannered captions editor whose miserable marriage ends up empowering her to be so much bolder outside the confines of her cold apartment than she ever could’ve imagined. While Jane and Patty’s journeys throughout the season go about where you might expect them to based on their basic character descriptions, Cindy’s trajectory manages to surprise, not least because of Darke’s compassionate performance.
Once you look outside this threesome, however, Good Girls Revolt starts to waver.
The show desperately wants to make a political statement, but doesn’t know how
Good Girls Revolt tries to confront at least dozen hot topics of its era without really saying much about any of them.
Throughout the season, News of the Week’s various “good girls” try to revolt against gender inequality, one-sided takes on the Black Panthers, forced pregnancies, the Vietnam War, blanket statements against the Vietnam War, their own libidos, and more.
In particular, the stories that deal with ‘70s-era race relations fall victim to confused storytelling. On the one hand, you have Patty fighting to convince Doug to take the Black Panthers’ viewpoints more seriously and recognize them as the forefront of the civil rights movement — even as she fails to ask a single actual black person what they think of that assessment. (She does get called out on this oversight by a black co-worker, but it’s a passing courtesy mention more than anything else.)
On the other hand, you have Denise (Betty Gabriel), a new black researcher in the newsroom who feels lucky to have landed her job and just wants to get her work done. Initially, Denise begs off when Patty tries to recruit her for the lawsuit. So Patty gets the News of the Week women’s black ACLU lawyer, Eleanor — as in the very real DC representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, played warmly by Joy Bryant — to tell Denise that her seemingly well-off white coworkers are trapped in a box, just like Eleanor and Denise. Their cause, she tells Denise, is the same.
And lo, Denise joins the lawsuit, and both Patty and the show skip off to their next task within seconds.
This ... doesn’t seem fair. As one of the very few black women working at News of the Week, Denise must overcome many more obstacles than her white coworkers. Even if “we’re fighting the same fight” might’ve been the argument Patty needed to make in 1970, talking about Denise’s struggles within the context of Patty triumphantly getting Denise on her side is pretty indicative of Good Girls Revolt’s priorities.
The show is certainly aware of the the day’s politics, and the fact that they can’t be ignored, but half-assing its treatment of some of the era’s biggest social issues makes it obvious that Good Girls Revolt hasn’t put as much thought into them as it has with the everyday ups and downs of its main characters.
Like its heroines, Good Girls Revolt wants to be bold, but is a little too hesitant to do it
As the News of the Week women inch their way toward upending the status quo, so does the show. Patty and Cindy spend several episodes recruiting women to the cause; nothing beyond that happens until the very last third of the season.
Even if this glacial pace has become fairly standard for streaming series that debut entire seasons at once, Good Girls Revolt’s leisurely stroll is deeply frustrating. A secret gender discrimination lawsuit is a fantastic, exciting premise. So why does it feel so scared to actually, you know, revolt?
As a whole, Good Girls Revolt mostly seems impressed with itself for its commitment to being a period piece (to its credit, it frequently looks gorgeous) and daring to Go There, even if it never truly does. The reason it falls short is that it never really figures out how to treat its various storylines as interconnected arcs; instead, they’re all scattered parts of a bigger picture that never quite comes into focus.
The first season of Good Girls Revolt is now available to stream on Amazon.