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‘Good Girls Revolt’ is a much-needed dose of forthright feminism on TV

🕐 6 min read

If polls and predictions hold steady, we’re about to elect the nation’s first female president, which – come on – means something, right? Or have you, too, noticed a subdued enthusiasm for history in the making? Television, with its rapid response to zeitgeist and other topical matters, hasn’t shown much recent interest in feminist themes either, which is a shame because the subject is so vital and right in front of our faces.

That’s why it’s particularly gratifying to dive into creator Dana Calvo’s “Good Girls Revolt,” Amazon’s instantly addictive 10-episode drama that’s loosely based on Lynn Povich’s 2012 memoir of the discrimination lawsuit that a group of women journalists brought against Newsweek magazine in 1970.

Though it’s set nearly 50 years in the past, much of what “Good Girls Revolt” zeroes in on is freshly – even desperately – relevant to arguments we’re still having about the gender divide. Bring your 80-cents-on-the-dollar outrage here, for an entertainingly upright tale of the fight for equality. At times, a viewer can only wish that some of what the series portrays in many scenes felt archaic or backward; flip to any season of “The Bachelor” or a replay Donald Trump’s excuses for his “locker-room talk” to know that it’s not.

Filled with disciplined period details and the full spectrum of sexist slights (“You’re pretty cute when you get a scoop”), it’s almost impossible to resist comparing “Good Girls Revolt” to Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” on AMC. Indeed, it’s quite possible to imagine the clang and clatter at News of the Week magazine is occurring mere blocks from the brooding hush of the Sterling Cooper (et al.) offices over on Madison Avenue.

It’s also tempting to start off sorting the Peggy Olsons from the Joan Harrises, but it’s better to let “Good Girls Revolt” stand on its own, especially once you get past the first episode’s clumsiness and excess indignation. For all the decorative similarities, these are very different shows: Weiner and his “Mad Men” writers favored opacity, loose ends and manly silences; Calvo and her writers offer a bracingly direct route into the frustrated lives of characters who are big and (pardon the term) broad. These are women who say what they mean and mean what they say, with banter and repartee that’s much more fun to watch than one of Don Draper’s doleful moods.

Could “Good Girls Revolt” be held up as a shining example of the difference between TV dramas run by and focused on women and those run by and focused on men? Is it possible that women creators are less inclined to lead viewers down every twisted path and rabbit hole? Maybe, if that’s the game you want to play. Or maybe we can resist the urge to sort and stereotype and just enjoy the show.

Genevieve Angelson (“Backstrom”) stars as Patti Robinson, a hard-working researcher at News of the Week, a (fictitious) magazine struggling to distinguish itself from Time and Newsweek in the era of New Journalism. As the magazine is busily closing an issue on a Saturday in early December 1969, news breaks of violence at the Altamont Speedway music festival east of San Francisco.

The magazine’s top editor, Finn Woodhouse (Chris Diamantopoulos of “Silicon Valley”), senses an opportunity here to appeal to younger readers: Could Altamont, along with the recent arrest of Charles Manson and his gang, represent a shift in the counterculture movement?

Woodhouse’s fusty national editor, Wick McFadden (Jim Belushi), is aghast at the suggestion that the Altamont story could replace an already-prepared story about Vietnam on the cover. Woodhouse gives his male reporters a few hours to pull an Altamont story together.

But it’s the women researchers like Patti, who work in an area called “the Pit,” who do the heavy lifting – making calls, hunting down leads and digging into records (all of this long before Google), which the men then take, fashion into prose and get a byline for, sometimes passing the women’s sentences and paragraphs off as their own. Patti flies out to San Francisco to nail down a source, but it’s her colleague (and lover) Doug Rhodes (Hunter Parrish) who gets to put his name on the story.

A new hire, Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer), find this practice astonishingly offensive and quits after her first day, but not before she’s written circles around the man to whom she was supposed to be dutifully supplying research.

Though fudged somewhat (the real Ephron’s stint at the real Newsweek predated the actual “Good Girls Revolt” suit by some years), Nora’s insubordination catalyzes the Pit. It isn’t long before Patti and another researcher, Cindy Reston (Erin Darke), accept Nora’s offer to attend a women’s consciousness-raising group, where they meet a civil rights attorney named Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant).

Soon enough, it dawns on them that they are overworked, underpaid and unfairly prohibited from becoming full-fledged reporters. Norton encourages them to band together with their colleagues and file a complaint with relatively new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Among their early, surreptitious discoveries: The male reporters are making $21,000 a year, while the women make about $7,000 a year. (In today’s dollars, that’s about $130,000 vs. $43,000.)

“Good Girls Revolt” would be a fun show to watch even if all it focused on was the all-consuming acts of journalism that preoccupy its characters’ lives. It’s been a long time, especially if we toss out Aaron Sorkin’s dreadfully sanctimonious “The Newsroom,” since we had a show this thrilling about making that extra call, coaxing a reluctant source and typing as fast as one’s fingers can fly.

But it’s an even better show when it dwells on the contradictions inherent in all political and social movements. Darke’s portrayal of Cindy is especially endearing – she’s a newlywed whose strict husband has given her one year to enjoy a career before quitting to have children. Her consciousness raises through the roof once she discovers that he’s pricked a hole in her diaphragm so she’ll get pregnant. Yet the key outcome of this is to send her into an illicit affair with Ned (Michael Oberholtzer), the magazine’s art director.

So eager to please are these obedient “girls” that the men can and do treat them as sex objects. Woodhouse, the boss, is only in his early 40s but realizes that he and his magazine are on the wrong side of the generation gap; he begins to see Patti as both an editorial muse and an irresistible conquest. Another reporter, Sam Rosenberg (Daniel Eric Gold), pines for his research assistant, Jane Hollander (“Pitch Perfect’s” Anna Camp), a socialite Bryn Mawr alum who is easily the Pit’s most efficient journalist and is under extraordinary pressure from her parents to get her seemingly perfect boyfriend to propose. Her worst fear is to be labeled a “career girl.”

TV viewers have seen Camp more than once in the role of prim and dangerous (“True Blood,” where she played the vindictive wife of a televangelist, comes to mind), but here, as Jane, she’s working on a much deeper level, playing the part of the good girl with the most to lose as the world keeps evolving around her.

There’s also something slightly yet distinctly Young Hillary in Jane’s coolly stiff, virginal resistance to the free love and free will that’s firing up all around her. “Good Girls Revolt” is best when it reminds us that change comes more slowly for some, but one way or another, it eventually breaks through.

There’s also a sense that true progress is a task that’s never finished. Part of the experience of watching “Good Girls Revolt” is knowing how often and easily that rock rolls all the way back down the hill.

“Good Girls Revolt” (10 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Amazon. (Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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