The pilot of Amazon Prime’s newest show reminded me just how much time I spent holding my breath watching “Mad Men,” waiting for its female characters to do something interesting. I was a fan of that show, but its depiction of the dawn of the sexual revolution was, to understate, a slower burn than I’d hoped.
Set in 1969, “Good Girls Revolt” has a very similar look, though it’s set at a thinly fictionalized Newsweek magazine (“News of the Week”), not an ad agency. But in just one hour, it delivers a delightfully satisfying women’s-liberation punch, peppered with references to real people and thoroughly tricked out in the clothes and sounds of the era (including “Let’s all get out our compacts,” the rallying cry for women at consciousness-raising meetings to contemplate their own vulvas).
The show, created by Dana Calvo (a former journalist herself), is based on the book by Lynn Povich about 46 women who filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the publication. We jump in as the status quo is up and running: Male reporters are paired with female researchers, who do much of the heavy lifting, yet get none of the credit (the man’s byline alone goes on the story).
Enter new hire Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter), a feminist in gal-Friday’s clothing, who watches in disbelief as her female colleagues get screwed over in a variety of ways — and not always just professionally. One co-worker (Erin Darke) realizes, via Nora’s suggestion, that her husband has poked a hole in her diaphragm to get her pregnant and homebound earlier than they had planned. Nora cheerily suggests she visit a gynecologist she knows on the Upper East Side — “and across from his office,” she adds, “you can get the best egg-salad sandwich,” a truly Ephron-esque flourish. At times, her character seems more of an observer of the action than a participant — that she is simply channeling the spirit of Ephron, pointing at the state of things and saying to the viewer, “Can you believe this shit really happened?” And it did happen, of course (in addition to the Povich book, check out Ephron’s early works, like “Wallflower at the Orgy” and “Scribble, Scribble” for wry meditations on reporting-while-female).
The pilot’s plot takes place around a real event: Researchers Jane (Anna Camp) and Patti (Genevieve Angelson) are digging into the breaking news out of Altamont of a murder at a rock festival. They’re the ones who track down the story about the Hell’s Angels being hired as security; Patti muses off-the-cuff to her boss about its being the turning point where you couldn’t assume that because someone did drugs, they were “into peace and love,” which in real life would become one of the main themes in the discussion about its cultural significance.
Senior editor Wick McFadden (James Belushi) pushes back against Jane and Patti’s sources because they’re women, and not just any women — a back-up singer and a groupie. (In a shout-out to Cynthia Plaster Caster, one of Patti’s sources is a “caster” named Juicy Lucy who swears to the veracity of her statements “on my Jim Morrison.”)
“These are our man-on-the-street interviews,” they insist to the dismissive editors. “Except they’re women. With no clout.” They’re right, and they’re tenacious, but they’re still second-class citizens. In one scene, McFadden praises Jane’s research and segues effortlessly into commanding her to make him a cup of coffee.
When Nora takes a stand, McFadden feels free to yell at her, in front of the whole office, “Girls do not do rewrites! That’s simply not how we do things here!” It’s a scene that feels simultaneously retro and completely of the moment, considering how much news about sexism in media and entertainment is coming to the fore at the moment (see also: nearly every story on this site).
Joy Bryant of “Parenthood” pops up later on as ACLU representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (who is, in real life, now a Washington, D.C. Congresswoman). She leads a consciousness-raising group to which Nora invites her co-workers (and then hilariously ducks out when the vagina-gazing part of the evening starts up, another nod to the real Ephron, who wrote in “Crazy Salad” that “we have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy and a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is knowing what your uterus looks like.”)
Based on the number of high ratings on the free-streaming pilot, I’m optimistic about the show’s chances to expand into a series. But if you look at TV history, it faces a tough, uphill climb. “Hollywood is notorious for rejecting journalism shows,” Calvo told Variety. I’m also feeling a little cynical about the idea that mainstream audiences will be as receptive to a show about women in the late ’60s/early ’70s as they were to a show about men in the same era. But then again, maybe the sexual revolution is the new big thing. After all, Lena Dunham’s got another show about the era in the works for HBO right now.