‘The Girls on the Bus’ solves the problem of making a show about Hillary Clinton

No one wants to relive the 2016 presidential election. (Or, indeed, the 2020 one.)

That was always the challenge facing “The Girls on the Bus,” Max’s compulsively watchable and startlingly apolitical dramedy about the agony of political reporting. Inspired by former New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s memoir “Chasing Hillary,” which chronicles her years following Clinton on the campaign trail, the series explores the beat’s grubby compromises, temptations and rewards by fictionalizing almost every aspect of the source material. In so doing, it turns a memoir about a globally significant event — and missteps that contributed to the outcome — into an ensemble show that locates its narrative stakes in epiphanies about writing and friendship. Also female solidarity, political differences be damned.

The series pinballed from Netflix to the CW before finally landing at the streamer Max, which might account for some its oddities as well as its pleasures. Co-created by Chozick and Julie Plec (“The Vampire Diaries”), the 10-episode season imports the structure but strips out the specific content of Chozick’s real observations and highly consequential dilemmas (over how to cover Clinton, among other things — and whether she and other journalists became Putin’s “puppets” in the course of chasing the Podestaleaks story). The result is a frequently funny drama following four fictional reporters as they cover a flawed female candidate in the lead-up to a fictional Democratic National Convention.

End of carousel

They have different philosophies, backgrounds, temperaments and politics. The protagonist, Sadie McCarthy (Melissa Benoist) is a sympathetic mess struggling to reconcile orders to remain objective with her attachment to a particular candidate. After a major career setback (she became a meme when her candidate lost), she’s been given a second chance to resume her political beat at the Sentinel, a thinly veiled version of the New York Times. A devotee of longform narrative who routinely converses with an imaginary Hunter S. Thompson — with whom she hashes out, among other things, the professional and ethical latitude he and his ilk were granted while female journalists are held to impossible standards — Sadie works sources and blurs lines without ever quite knowing whether she’s connecting with people, manipulating them or both.

Traveling with Sadie and competing with her for scoops is Grace (Carla Gugino), an older, icily effective “scoop machine” and near-celebrity herself who works for the Washington Union (a thinly veiled version of this newspaper). She puts career before family with no apologies, much to her floundering college-aged daughter’s (Rose Jackson Smith) distress. She’s also competing with family; her estranged father, also a famous journalist, undermines her whenever he can. She’s established and cynical, skeptical of liberal bromides, and believes firmly in journalistic objectivity.

Rounding out the quartet are Lola (Natasha Behnam), a 20-something socialist TikTok influencer who funds her journalism by hawking sponsored products to her massive following, and Kimberlynn (Christina Elmore), a Black conservative from a wealthy family working for a Fox News stand-in where she’s regularly tokenized.

Fictionalizing the world around “Chasing Hillary” turned out to be a peculiar but generative solution to the problem of adapting it. The closest analogue is Apple TV Plus’s “The Morning Show,” which also built a parallel media universe to explore the fallout of a real-world event (in that case, the #MeToo exposure of “Today’s” Matt Lauer). Like that show, “The Girls on the Bus” is a fake-out. Purporting to take on a major historical moment, it actually prioritizes personal quests — and interpersonal connections — over institutional and political crises.

The result is gripping stuff if you’re interested in writerly struggles (which I am). And in thinking through the grimy ethics of what these kinds of journalists sometimes have to do (extract confidences and then betray them, essentially committing private harms for the sake of an abstract Public Good). The series works best when it gives these characters room to act out as the passionate weirdos they are (Gugino and Behnam especially). The dialogue crackles when they grapple with what journalism is, whether objectivity is possible and how sources should be cultivated, audiences served, bosses appeased, stories funded or careers built.

That aspect gets blurry as the season proceeds because with the exception of Sadie (a true believer prone to real introspection about the consequences of her coverage), these characters, compelling though they are, can barely even be called ciphers for the ideologies they’re supposed to represent. This is particularly true of Kimberlynn, the Black right-wing journalist, whose lament — that there is no journalistic home for people like her — can be sustained only by preventing her from articulating any beliefs at all.

In practice no one, not even the TikToker, seems to actually believe what they say they do. (When she’s recruited by a respectable but right-leaning newspaper, for example, the intemperate leftie’s joy at being recognized by a legitimate news outlet seems untainted by her future employer’s well-known conservatism.) A strained but respectable effort to make the women broad-minded enough to bond despite their differences collapses — as the plot brings them together to take a bad man down — into piffle. While obviously riffing on “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s 1973 book about all-male “pack journalism” during the 1972 election, the show sometimes seems to understand itself as making a dull, predictable and thoroughly unpersuasive point about how women, in contrast to their male counterparts, work together instead of competing.

That said, there’s a winsome and winky self-awareness to “The Girls on the Bus,” and the ways the profession incentivizes self-absorption, that saves it from the dour “ethical conundrums” that perennially plague Reese Witherspoon’s character on “The Morning Show.” When Sadie gets contacted by an anonymous source, for instance, the show is overt about her hopes that she’s going to make her name by working with the next Deep Throat and her growing fear — which proves to be justified — that she’s in fact being used by the sorts of ugly forces she’d been idealistically hoping to expose.

The plot gets silly whenever it tries to sharpen into a crisis, or a point. That doesn’t detract as much as you might think from the show’s real strength, which is its muscular exploration of ambivalence, discomfort, ambition, idealism, self-delusion and betrayal. There’s more complexity than you might expect, much of it pertaining to the professional myopia from which the show self-consciously suffers. And what the series lacks in moral seriousness — and forfeits by teleporting to a reality with no Clinton or Trump — it compensates for by gamely and sometimes even rigorously investigating the mechanics of fallibility.

The Girls on the Bus (10 episodes) premieres March 14 with two episodes on Max, with subsequent episodes airing weekly.

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