In Amazon’s airy, agreeable new series Good Girls Revolt, the Sixties breathe their last breath at Altamont Speedway, and none of top brass at News of the Week is close enough to the zeitgeist to notice. The fictional magazine, competitor of Time, may be “the first draft of history,” to quote editor at large Finn Woodhouse (Chris Diamantopoulous), but its focus on Fed chairmen and Army spokesmen reflects a penchant for the official line: Finn and his conservative colleague, national editor Wick McFadden (Jim Belushi)—their names apparently culled from some prep school annual, circa Catcher in the Rye—instinctively frame the violence at Altamont as a dispatch for the culture pages, not a feature for the color cover.
It falls to researcher Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson), fresh from a stint in San Francisco, to explain the angle—for her, 1969 marks the grim, belated end of the Summer of Love—and work her sources, to bring to bear a point of view that differs from the editors, and indeed from her contemporaries on the magazine’s all-male reporting staff. With the help of fellow researchers Jane Hollander (Anna Camp), Cindy Reston (Erin Darke), and Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer), Patti embarks for California to pin down an eyewitness, and phones in the scoop with a satisfied grin. Despite independent corroboration, however, Wick suggests that her source isn’t credible—because she’s a flower child, because she produces plaster casts of rock stars’ penises, because she’s not a man.
“These are man-on-the street interviews,” Patti points out, in tempo with the beating heart of Good Girls Revolt, and with its promised revolution. “Except they happen to be women with no clout.”
Though creator Dana Calvo’s series is, at first blush, a Mad Men-inspired portrait of working women in the era of the ERA, it’s here, amid the red pencil and hanging proofs of the newsroom, that Good Girls Revolt is at its sharpest, acknowledging that the change afoot as 1969 becomes 1970 is also an effect of perspective. In Wick’s knee-jerk reaction to Patti’s New Age source, or reporter Doug Rhodes’ (Hunter Parrish) blinkered approach to the Black Panthers, the series animates the argument for inclusion—then and now, in journalism and on TV—by emphasizing its influence on the narratives we consume; “I have to write it the way I see it,” Doug, a dashing white wunderkind, says to Patti of the Panthers piece, and of course that’s just the problem.
The series’ sense of the culture (and counterculture) is as broad as a barn—the first episode contains references to Easy Rider, anti-war protestors, the Hell’s Angels, Buffalo Springfield, and Mark Rothko, as if the writers pilfered their research from a fourth grader’s class project—and its style is rather insipid when set alongside contemporaneous period pieces, including Mad Men and Masters of Sex. To its discredit, Good Girls Revolt invites the comparison. Down to its recycling of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” the series suggests what success might’ve looked like for ‘60s-set network copycats Pan Am and The Playboy Club: Sometimes simplistic, even artless, but entertaining enough to see through to season’s end.
While it concerns itself too much with Patti, Jane, and Cindy’s humdrum private lives, their non-committal boyfriends, shitty husbands, pushy parents, Good Girls Revolt shines when they’re filing copy or chasing leads, exhibiting the particular craft of those ignored by the “senior source,” or excluded from editorial luncheons. News of the Week’s female researchers are not as capable as their male co-workers—they’re more capable, wily and tenacious, willing to challenge the convention that certain stories (Altamont, Vietnam veterans, Harlem’s free clinics) are too “soft” for front-page news, simply because no politician or four-star general deigns to go on the record.
If a central tenet of modern journalism is to confront the powerful, the series suggests, it’s those precluded from reaching positions of power in the first place that tend to make damn fine reporters: Working wives, Black Panthers, and “homosexuals in Hollywood”—to use the words of the founding publisher’s fearsome, traditionalist daughter (Meagan Fay)—aren’t mere “trends” or “fads” for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. They’re part of our lived experience, shaping the stories we tell.
Encouraged by Ephron and the ACLU’s Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant), News of the Week’s female staffers prepare to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as pressure to capture new readers (“Get ‘em young, keep ‘em loyal”) pushes Finn to rethink the magazine’s direction, an apparent transformation from the poor man’s Time into the hip chick’s Rolling Stone. (It’s Patti’s phrase, after all, that sets the tone for his first editor’s note of the new decade: “From repression to expansion.”) If Good Girls Revolt suffers from the same miscalculation as many streaming series, with a slackly paced season that’s more setup than payoff, it nonetheless illustrates, with humor and verve, the importance of reporting that pursues the unexpected angle, the hitherto unheard source. Cindy, for instance, convinces two colleagues to join the complaint by appealing to their ambitions as foreign correspondents; Jane, cross-referencing yearbooks with the Army registry, selects an interview subject for her partner, Sam (Daniel Eric Gold), and puts it on his schedule; Patti, willing to court the penis plaster-caster at whom Wick turns up his nose, gets the story, and gets it right, and gets it before anyone else.
“It’s 1970, I need someone who can still get a hard on,” Finn says, frustrated, as he searches for a new editor attuned to the culture’s seismic shift, and the irony is exquisite. In Good Girls Revolt, the pen, not the penis, is the mightier instrument, and the women who wield it write a first draft of history that the next generation will read.
Good Girls Revolt is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.