Midway through the “Girlboss” premiere, Britt Robertson’s Sophia Amoruso walks down the street, tears pouring down her face, angrily shouting into her phone. She just got fired, and it first appears as though she feels the dismissal unjust. But then, just as she’s about to tick off a third reason her boss sucks, Sophia stops herself, and says, “Why am I such an asshole?”
It’s a question that had been building throughout our introduction to Sophia and asked in a moment that feels primed for self-discovery. In the span of 15 minutes, she’s been inexplicably cruel to her father, invited herself into a free, semi-permanent residency with a stranger, and made herself unreasonably late for work. She was fired not just for being perpetually late, but also for taking a personal phone call on company time, stealing her boss’ lunch, and unapologetically eating it in front of her.
By all accounts, she is an asshole. But it takes far too long to find out “why,” and the wait is frustrating. We’re meant to buy into Sophia’s immaturity as childish acting out, and, realistically, we should be more forgiving of a 20-something kid being a jerk than a 40-something grown-ass man (a la Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, and all the other aughts antiheroes). But “Girlboss” twists itself into knots defending Sophia’s right to stay in Never Never Land, and it never realizes that perpetual adolescence is the show’s problem, not hers. Sophia needs reason to change for the series to develop, and “Girlboss” is far too content watching the business grow instead of its star.
“Girlboss” is based on the true story of Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, a San Francisco native who built a clothing empire from nothing. She wrote about her journey in the bestselling memoir “#Girlboss,” and Amoruso joins Charlize Theron and showrunner Kay Cannon (“Pitch Perfect”) as an executive producer on the Netflix series.
The show is largely framed around the company’s history and kicks off with Sophia’s breakthrough sale: a vintage jacket she finds at a used clothing store and puts on eBay for a major payday. As the sales stack up, her hobby becomes a business and then an obsession soon after, with Sophia claiming the whole time she’s cheated the system; finding a way to make money without succumbing to the 9-to-5 lifestyle of adults she sees as saps.
Sophia is relentless about two things: her company and her adolescence. She hates being told to “grow up” and constantly extols the virtues of youth while desponding anything connected to the conventional idea of adulthood. She mocks her neighbor (RuPaul, in a thankless role) for going to work while she lounges in bed and rakes in the dollars. She makes fun of a store owner (Jim Rash) for selling her an item too cheaply. She even — and this is a mortal sin I cannot forgive — takes a phone call while watching the best scene in “O.C.” history: the death of Marissa Cooper. (That the series repeatedly misinterprets and lazily parodies Josh Schwartz’s operatic masterpiece doesn’t help either.)
Watching an ignorant but energetic youngster rebel against adulthood is nothing new, and “Girlboss'” iteration would be fine if it showed some semblance of self-awareness. We watch Sophia make bafflingly bad decisions and blame them on other people, but most episodes don’t bother informing her of those mistakes. In one episode, she gets drunk (for no reason) and messes up a dress delivery. The idea that a hangover is a choice, not an excuse, is the belief of an adolescent, but “Girlboss” remains intent on mocking those who mock Sophia for messing up. She got drunk. She was late because of it. And yet she’s rewarded for refusing to accept responsibility.
Continued follies like this become vexing quickly, and not because a 23-year-old doesn’t have her shit together. That’s fine — expected, even. But episodes too often end on an emotional high contradictory to the confounding lows of Sophia’s life. When she gets drunk and risks her business, we’re supposed to laugh at how she made it all work. But she’s clearly in pain, dealing with troubling, opaque emotions we aren’t allowed to understand yet, and her spiraling is being reinforced by a successful business and an array of overly supportive friends. We’re meant to smile when we can see, just barely, how troubled she really is, and it feels like we’re encouraging bad behavior by bingeing through 13 episodes of misguided stories. “Girlboss” doesn’t just portray an adolescent mentality. It inhabits one.
Even more exasperating than the first few episodes is coming to realize how good Robertson is after a half-dozen. The star of “Tomorrowland” and guest actress on “Casual” throws all of herself into a role requiring the vigor of a thousand children. She bounces around the screen as though she’s been injected with espresso every 30 minutes, and — given how maddening her character’s choices can be — it would be easy for her portrayal to become equally taxing. Instead, there’s a distinct watchability and appealing can-do spirit. She has enough confidence and charisma for us to believe Sophia would make friends and succeed with an online business.
Robertson makes all the right choices even when Sophia makes all the wrong ones. Someone could probably contort the events in “Girlboss” Season 1 into some sort of “Breaking Bad” antihero argument, posing Sophia doesn’t need to realize her mistakes for the series to work. But she does need to grow. She may not have to grow up, but she does need to move toward something — rather than cling to her adolescence — especially when the series itself is hindered by a similar stasis.
“Girlboss” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.