In the pilot episode of Good Girls Revolt, Amazon’s tale of women working at a weekly magazine in the late 1960s, a man and a woman are talking about the big event they are covering. The boss man tells the cool cat heroine: “But doing drugs doesn’t necessarily mean you believe in peace and love.” She corrects him. “Yes it does,” she says. “I mean, did. It was supposed to. I guess Altamont changed that.” That ham-fisted, obvious way of discussing a pivotal moment in history should tell you all you need to know about the show. Though admirable in intention, it lacks subtlety and is predictable in almost every way.
Those characters making moon eyes at one another? They are going to get it on. The uptight lass with the pretentious parents? She’s headed for rebellion. Someone takes drugs for the first time? Disaster is headed her way. And, yes, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” will score a scene.
The series from Dana Calvo (Made In Jersey) is inspired by a book of the same name by Lynn Povich, an account of a real-life gender-discrimination lawsuit filed against Newsweek in 1970. Here, however, the publication in question is News Of The Week, and its employees are all fictional, save for Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer, in a winking bit of casting), who swoops in as an oracle to spout wisdom and recipes. Nora’s presence in the opener is a bit of a fake-out: The true focus is Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson), a free spirited pot-smoker wise to the counterculture but media-obsessed. She’s flanked by Jane Hollander (Anna Camp), a highly competent, stuck-up rich girl, and Cindy Reston (Erin Darke), a sweetheart in a loveless marriage. These women are all researchers, a title that means they are tasked with doing much of the work, but aren’t allowed any of the credit. That goes to the male reporters, many of whom double as potential love interests.
Calvo, a former journalist, is invested in the mechanics of constructing a magazine story, and valiantly aims to make the act of news gathering as thrilling for the viewer as it is for her characters. However, to keep the action juicy, we’re also treated to a slew of rote will-they/won’t-they and on-again-off-again couplings. Patti’s entangled with pretty-boy Doug (Hunter Parrish), and is also a potential object of affection for editor Finn (Chris Diamantopoulos, attempting a Don Draper). Jane’s engaged in a flirtation with Sam (Daniel Eric Gold), even though he’s too Jewish for her folks. Cindy’s confiding in the Black Sabbath-appreciating photo editor Ned (Michael Oberholtzer), who is teaching her to love her body in a way her spouse won’t. No one’s here to knock a good romance, but, in this case, making our ladies’ sex lives just as important as their work undermines the show’s cause. By the end of the seven episodes screened for critics, the major obstacle is whether they’ll get to keep their boyfriends as they continue to challenge News Of The Week’s policies.
Patti and Cindy get the idea to hold their employer accountable after Nora invites them to a consciousness-raising meeting and they encounter ACLU lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton, played by Joy Bryant. Like Nora, Eleanor instructs the heroines in the ways of feminism, but there’s something particularly sour about the fact that the only black series regular’s sole function is to teach white women that they need to value themselves. An instance with a black colleague later on reveals that Patti is less progressive than she would like to think, but she has that in common with the show built around her.
Of course, nuance is not what Good Girls Revolt is going for. Everything about it, most of the acting included, lands with a thud. Erin Darke is a rare highlight as Cindy, conveying both curiosity and desperation as she slips into both sexual pleasure and sadness. Meanwhile, Patti should be a galvanizing force, but she’s a one-note ball of energy, and Angelson’s demeanor never feels convincingly vintage. As opposed to coming off as forward-thinking for her day, Patti is dropped in from the 21st century. She’s also costumed to look like hippie Barbie—her moccasin boots and mini-skirts appear plucked from a Halloween store.
More than a year out from the end of Mad Men, one would think another ’60s-set drama could flourish. But Good Girls Revolt collapses under the weight of the comparison it can’t avoid, even as it ventures into the 1970s. (That it mimics a Mad Men music cue does not help it stand independently: Is that really all there is?) Mad Men used ingenious storytelling to look at people mired in the past; Good Girls Revolt relies on clichés to portray the era’s innovators. These women deserve better than that.