The “three girls making their way in the big city” trope has been around for decades, going back to mid-20th-century films like Three Coins In The Fountain, The Best Of Everything, and yes, Valley Of The Dolls. As these young women strive for success, will they sacrifice love for their careers? Or, more likely, their careers for love? As the decades have passed, TV has tried to take up the mantle, from Lipstick Jungle in 2008 to the recent Amazon failure Good Girls Revolt. In most of these productions, the archetypes are the same: There’s the innocent, who’s often our main character/entry point (using Valley Of The Dolls terms, the Anne), the ambitious one (the Neely), and the street-smart savvy one (the Jennifer).
The umpteenth entry in this career-girl genre is FreeForm’s The Bold Type, featuring three young women in the early stages of their careers at Scarlet magazine, which bears a strong resemblance to Cosmopolitan. That’s because former Cosmo editor Joanna Coles is one of the producers, and helped craft the show about her former job. But the problem with sending out TV shows about journalists to journalists to critique it is that no one knows better how far these shows stray from actual life. The Bold Type is especially egregious in this regard, as all three of our leads wear outfits that cost more than a regular human journalist’s actual salary. And they would have to get up at dawn to pull off some of these elaborate hairstyles. The chic first-time New York apartments are way too luxurious for editorial twentysomethings. Even the open-air workspaces seem more glam than reality.
That escapism is part of the point, but it’s also a bit hard to take when none of these women seem capable of repeating an ensemble. The stern but supportive editor, played by Melora Hardin from The Office, is also a bit of a fabrication (perhaps how Coles imagines herself in real life); it seems like a stretch that a hard-working, impossibly busy editor would have that much time to care, really care, about three of her most junior employees, carefully crafting what kind of writers they’ll turn into, possibly contrasted with what kind they want to be.
Maybe those false notes ring so hollow because they’re aligned next to some modern takes that The Bold Type gets really right. Ambitious Sutton (Meghann Fahy) ponders an ad sales job, which will certainly pay more, even though her heart lies in the fashion department. Innocent Jane (Katie Stevens) is a bit puzzling in an annoying manner: excited about her promotion to staff writer, but somehow clueless that that will mean exposing her own sexual history in a magazine that discusses the subject so prominently.
But The Bold Type does an exemplary job of showing how much journalism has changed, thanks to newer technology and the constantly evolving world of social media. Sometimes it uses the age differences in its characters to its advantage: Sutton is sleeping with an older magazine board member (Sam Page from Mad Men and House Of Cards), who introduces her to the world of phone sex, while she sends him flirtatious selfies. One of Hardin’s editor’s more inspired ideas is to have Jane keep track of her ex without social media, as post-breakup people did in olden times. And when Jane hooks up with another sex columnist, how can either of them be sure that they’re not just using each other for material?
Best of all is savvy Kat (Aisha Dee), the magazine’s social media manager, who chimes in on what kind of digital traffic pieces will get. She also becomes fascinated by activist photographer Adeena (Nikohl Boosheri), offering her the opportunity to explore the more fluid side of her sexuality. But when Kat is viciously bullied on Twitter, her immediate dismissal of it gradually disappears as she realizes that the internet is permanent, and can also be quite frightening when she’s receiving threatening messages from a fleet of anonymous sources.
That’s the part that The Bold Type excels at, offering modern takes that the young women of The Best Of Everything’s Pendant Publishing could never have imagined. (Anvil-like, Scarlet’s publishing corporation is called Steinem.) They’re almost enough to surpass the sometimes cloyingly sweet nature of the unrealistic trio at the show’s center. But the three women have a certain chemistry, making for a frothy, if idealized, look at life at a big-city magazine. Creator Sarah Watson reports that the show was first slated for NBC, where it was set to focus on Matt Ward’s character Alex, as a former Wall Street reporter taking a career downshift to a women’s magazine. Now that Pretty Little Liars is over, The Bold Type fills this particular fun niche over at Freeform, wisely switching focus to a new female fleet of twentysomethings. Just as long as any young aspiring journalists watching understand that there’s nothing quite so far-fetched as those wardrobes.