The rise of women taking their place in the newsroom told intelligently in 'Good Girls Revolt'

If you ever watched “Mad Men” and found yourself longing for a spin-off following the workplace adventures of Joan and Peggy — and let’s be honest, who didn’t? — then “Good Girls Revolt” might be for you.

The drama, premiering Friday on Amazon, opens in late 1969 in the offices of News of the Week, a prestigious magazine where men are editors and writers while women are relegated to subordinate roles as mail girls and fact-checkers.  

“Good Girls Revolt” follows three young women as they fight to dismantle the old boys’ network at the office and reconcile their professional ambitions with their personal desires. (The series is a fictionalized version of Lynn Povich’s 2012 book of the same name, which recounts the 1970 gender discrimination lawsuit filed by female employees at Newsweek magazine.) 

Each of the main characters puts a compelling spin on an identifiable type. Patti (Genevieve Angelson) is the Free-Spirited Hippie Chick with a titanic work ethic; Jane (Anna Camp) is the Icy Blonde Princess surprised to learn she might be a career girl; Cindy (Erin Darke) is the Shy, Bespectacled Mouse with a sensuous side (and a raging booze problem).

They are stirred to action by new girl Nora Ephron — yes, that Nora Ephron— who abruptly quits News of the Week when she’s told, in no uncertain terms, that women aren’t allowed to write at News of the Week. (In a bit of meta casting, Ephron is played by Grace Gummer, whose mother, Meryl Streep, played  a fictionalized version of Ephron in the 1986 movie “Heartburn.”)

The late Ephron, who briefly worked at Newsweek in the early ’60s before becoming a famous newspaper columnist and filmmaker, has become a kind of patron saint to women writers. In “Good Girls Revolt,” her character is mostly absent after the pilot, but plays a similar role — she is the mythical woman who defied convention, scored a byline and inspires others to do the same.  

Comparisons to “Mad Men,” are inevitable and, if not exactly invited, then certainly not discouraged. “Good Girls Revolt” shares a setting and themes — not to mention at least one cast member in Camp  — with the hugely influential AMC drama.

But unlike such short-lived, mid-century knockoffs as “The Playboy Club” or “Pan Am,” “Good Girls Revolt” manages to tell a broadly appealing tale about social change without dumbing it down.

And as the series progresses, the differences from the elliptical, brooding “Mad Men” become more apparent. The storytelling is brisk and accessible, and the characters are complex but not inscrutable; we understand their motivations and personal crises, at times too readily. (The series could use roughly 25% fewer shots of Cindy surreptitiously sneaking a drink.)

With new cover stories at the center of each episode — e.g. the Black Panthers, the 1970 postal strike  —  the show has a sturdy, built-in structure and an organic link between the characters and the big headlines of the time period. 

That’s not to say “Good Girls Revolt” entirely avoids “The ’60s for Dummies” syndrome. The pilot is a bit clunky and includes a pivotal dramatic moment set to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” which should henceforth be banned from all depictions of the ’60s.

But “Good Girls Revolt” improves considerably as it progresses, portraying a turbulent chapter in the recent past through lived experiences of young, seemingly average women rather than period clichés or “Forrest Gump”-style  encounters with history.

Created by Dana Calvo, a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, “Good Girls Revolt” comes to life most vividly in moments that capture the frenzied excitement of rewriting a story hours before deadline or pinning down an elusive source.

Though it depicts drug use and sexual experimentation, the series has an essentially wholesome quality. Patti, Jane and Cindy are indeed “good girls,” diligent women who undoubtedly graduated near the top of their classes at Bryn Mawr or Vassar. They are slightly groovier Tracy Flicks, intoxicated by the scent of freshly sharpened pencils and the chance to excel within the limited confines of their workplace.

It hardly seems a coincidence that the series opens just months after a future presidential candidate, often ridiculed for her perfectionism, graduated from Wellesley College. This is a love letter to the Hillary Clinton generation (if not Hillary herself).

“Good Girls Revolt” is an eminently watchable, admiringly written drama that makes women’s liberation, so often portrayed as a movement forged by dour, humorless women, seem exhilarating, essential and — would you believe it? — fun.  

Even their gender discrimination lawsuit, spearheaded by ACLU attorney (and future congresswoman) Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant) and plotted surreptitiously over the course of the 10-episode season, has the feel of a covert spy mission.

In many ways “Good Girls Revolt” is a companion piece to “That Girl” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” trailblazing shows that portrayed young, single women deferring marriage and family in order to pursue careers — still a novel concept in the early 1970s. (There are also a few soapy notes borrowed from “Valley of the Dolls,” which is rarely a bad thing.)

As the female employee of a print publication, I am perhaps predisposed to liking “Good Girls Revolt,” but there is plenty here to interest and amuse even for those who never read “The Feminine Mystique” or don’t know a hed from a dek.

And like any good show about the past, “Good Girls Revolt” is also about the present. At a time when news honchos are losing their jobs for alleged sexual misconduct and the federal government is investigating the Hollywood gender gap, it is as relevant as ever. 

‘Good Girls Revolt’

Where: Amazon.com

When: Anytime

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

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