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Katie Stevens
Photo: Pantazidis Panagiotis (ABC)
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Among the varied virtues of The Bold Type, one of the most indispensable has always been its eagerness to tackle some of the most complicated aspects of being a young woman in the 21st century. The same is true of its knack to address those ideas with an eye toward clarity and approachability. It is simultaneously aspirational and grounded, subtle and straightforward, a didactic effort tailored to a specific audience and a work of crowd-pleasing, effervescent fun. A byproduct of these lofty and admirable goals is that there’s precious little room for error. The missteps stick out like a typo on the cover of the September issue.

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Such is the case with the show’s fourth season, which, in the three episodes provided to critics, maintains all those strengths and a few more, but retains a few of its foibles as well. As ever with this engaging Freeform series, the pros far outweigh the cons; while the show has yet to top season one’s exemplary “Carry The Weight,” these three episodes enthusiastically tackle everything from the current state of print and digital media to one woman’s experience of marathoning-while-trans, and do so thoughtfully and energetically. But what was a wrinkle in seasons one and two and a significant misstep in season three has a become a big, flashing problem area—as the women of Scarlet are thrust into the digital landscape this season, we’ll ditch the cover simile and instead liken it to a loud, colorful autoplay video, bellowing at you from the center of the page. The issue is Tiny Jane (Katie Stevens), and if there’s no course-correction—or, at least, an attempt by the show to address Jane’s biggest flaws as frankly as it explores other topics—it’s a problem that threatens to dispel this show’s enjoyable, and occasionally essential, magic.

There’s reason for hope, however. It’s not as if course-correction isn’t possible—the show does quite a lot of it in the fourth season. After a brief and highly entertaining flash-forward, the action picks up precisely where the third season left off. Jane, Kat (Aisha Dee), and Sutton (Meghann Fahy) walk into the Scarlet offices, fresh off the triumph of wrapping a groundbreaking issue of the magazine, only to be greeted by the sight of desks being hauled out by movers and a pack of dumbstruck co-workers, with superboss Jacqueline Carlyle (the great Melora Hardin) nowhere to be seen. (Particularly distressed: Jacqueline’s assistant Andrew, played by Adam Capriolo, who gets a well-deserved increased presence on the show this year.) To say too much more is to spoil last season’s solid cliffhanger, but rest easy: Neither Jacqueline nor Hardin is going anywhere.

It will surprise no one to learn that Kat, Sutton, and Tiny Jane adopt a save-the-day attitude with regard to both Jacqueline and the magazine—a particular highlight arrives when some of their anxious coworkers stare them down when they emerge from a fashion closet confab, saying they only let the trio sneak off because it would surely result in a game plan. (It did not.) That “we have to save the family farm” energy makes the premiere the strongest of these three episodes, though there’s not a weak one in the bunch—and the same can be said of the three women who make this central friendship so essential to the show’s success.

So it’s worth noting that the Tiny Jane problem is not in the least a Katie Stevens problem. All three of the show’s heroines benefit from having a capable and empathetic actor bringing her to life, and Steven is no exception; in fact, she seems to have a better handle on Jane than the writers do. (More on that shortly.) Dee’s relaxed, emotional performance anchors some storylines that might otherwise teeter over into self-congratulatory territory into a place that’s honest and real—the third episode, “Marathon,” is one of her best of the series. And Fahy, giving one of TV’s most charming and underrated performances, continues to define the show’s fizzy, occasionally bawdy comic streak with exquisite timing and a particular aptitude for punchlines that hurt just a little bit. At this point in the proceedings, these three have this friendship down pat. It’s totally believable, even when the circumstances completely abandon reality. (See: clothing, apartments, in-office behavior, the list goes on. But hey, they’re taking fewer cabs now.)

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As for the rest of the cast, even the best of them (sans Hardin) remain mostly sidelined, particularly Matt Ward’s Alex, who got the worst subplot of last season and is mostly confined to making stupid assumptions about a gay coworker in these three episodes. Sam Page and Stephen Conrad Moore do well with whatever they’re given, though it’s usually not much. But this is a show about those three women, their magical boss, and a bunch of amazing clothes; their co-workers, love interests, and stories/causes/projects of the week will always come in second.

That’s what makes the Tiny Jane problem such an issue—when something goes askew in that friendship, the whole show suffers. Jane has always been a bit tricky—the show’s tendency to require her to turn personal problems into capital-S stories means she gets more than her fair share of very special scenes, and it also has a bad habit of forgetting what lessons she’s already learned in a way that feels like writer error, not character flaw. But last year, Jane began to take on a patina of white feminist nonsense, and while The Bold Type occasionally held her accountable (mostly through poor Kat, who spends what feels like a lot of time educating her friend), it’s also very quick to forgive her—and in turn, itself. That troubling thread becomes a big old knot in “Marathon,” and Stevens plays it perfectly—but it’s less clear whether or not the show realizes what she’s playing. It starts as another quick instance of Kat gently but firmly telling Jane she’s using an offensive term, and Jane hears her, but from there it all gets worse, leading to a “woke-off” that could be interesting if the show weren’t so invested in both-sidesing everything before patting itself on the back.

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It’s possible that outside these three episodes, Jane’s very troubling defensive streak will be interrogated more fully, which would cast “Marathon” and part of the previous season in a very different light. But as it stands now, Tiny Jane’s arc is a glaring sour note in an otherwise impossible confection: A heart-on-its-sleeve, good-for-you affair that’s also a glossy, giddy comic workplace drama. There may be the odd off issue, but we’re still ready to renew our subscription.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.

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