Amazon’s ’60s Feminism Pilot ‘Good Girls Revolt’ Wants to Be ‘Mad Men,’ But With Nora Ephron

The pilot of Amazon’s late-’60s feminist office drama Good Girls Revolt ends with a group of women gleefully telling their male colleagues that they’ve been to the kind of women’s meeting where women investigate their vaginas with their compact mirrors. Then one woman goes home and, as her husband kvetches from the bedroom, sits on the toilet and pulls out her compact mirror.

In case viewers didn’t pick it up from the earlier consciousness-raising, the blunt office sexism, and the women gathering together after their enraged colleague — who happens to be Nora Ephron — quits due to said sexism, we are experiencing the Dawn of Feminism (or the Dawn of Second-Wave White Feminism, critics might aptly note, despite the fact that the consciousness-raising session is run by a very groovily dressed, pregnant Eleanor Holmes Norton). From this first hour in the office with the “good girls,” one thing is clear: Amazon’s pilot, based on  Lynn Povich’s history, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, is desperate to pick up where Mad Men left off.

And the material it has to work with is excellent: a newsweekly (News of the Week, the fictionalized version is called) facing the counterculture, both as a subject of its journalism and as an invasion in the office itself. Sadly, too much  media about the ’60s decides to approach the period Forrest Gump style and squeeze every facet of the turbulent decade into one small space. What made Mad Men unique was the way it peered at those years through an incredibly narrow, unusual lens.

Not so with Good Girls Revolt, no matter how much its shots of nattily dressed journalists poring over magazine covers feel like attempts to ape Matt Weiner’s masterpiece. Before its first hour is over, our characters have discussed pot, blue jeans, love-ins, Haight Ashbury, groupies, the Manson family, and Otis Redding; at the same time, women are asked to get coffee constantly, regularly hit on, called “dear” and other demeaning names, and denied the chance to exercise their talents, all while imbalanced sexual relationships lurk offstage. Musical cues include “Time of the Season” by the Zombies and “Light My Fire” by the Doors.

The writers definitely read their American history textbooks. Unfortunately, though, cramming every possible reference to the collapse of the counterculture and the birth of feminism into one hour is less an effective way to tell a story and more a recipe for a really great drinking game. Even the premise of the pilot revolves around Altamont’s famous rock ‘n’ roll stabbings. The discussion surrounding how and whether to cover this incident reveals major divisions among the News of the Week staff.  Besides the conflict between the male reporters and Patti (Genevieve Angelson), the hip (in the ’60s sense of the word) female researcher who wants to pursue the story and nab the Hells Angels, several other big, symbolic ’60s conflicts are at play.

The indefatigable Patti and her reporter partner (who is also her partner for  getting it on in the office infirmary) are rivals with a more “straight” reporter-writer pair, whose researcher is a “good girl” named Jane and played by Anna Camp. These two squares get all the cover stories, while Patti and her petulant paramour Doug (Hunter Parrish) are left behind. Meanwhile, a younger editor, Chris Diamantopoulos’ Finn, is eager to cover Altamont and similar cultural stories because he wants to give Rolling Stone a run for its money, whereas James Belushi’s boorish, Nixonian “Wick” just wants to put more tales of ‘Nam on the cover, competing  with Time.

Eventually, Patti and Jane hatch a scheme for Patti to go out to San Francisco and get the real dirt on Altamont, interviewing some backup singers and a famous groupie. Back at the office, it’s Nora Ephron’s first week on the job, and she steps into a sort of fairy-godmother role on the show. Nora, played by Meryl Streep spawn Grace Gummer, is the one who initially urges Patti and Jane to collaborate instead of competing, pointing out that they’re basically fighting for the men’s scraps. Wise woman! She also knows everything about men sabotaging their partner’s birth control, the protocol for buying formal gloves, New York’s best deli sandwiches, OB/GYNs, cooking, and — obviously — writing. And when she is told, after Wick mistakenly praises her prose, thinking a man wrote it, that “girls don’t do rewrites,” she flounces out, sowing the seeds for the feminist revolt to come. (The real-life Ephron did, in fact, quit that job.) The camera lingers on all the women in the office following Nora like she’s the Pied Piper, just in case we missed the significance of her exit. Never fear; they’ll see her again at the consciousness-raising.

There’s very little to praise in Good Girls Revolt‘s ham-handed script and overly wide breadth of subject matter. Still, I confess to hoping that Amazon will pick up this show for a full season anyway, mostly because I want to see the female characters — brash Patti, smart Jane, mousy Cindy — get fleshed out, delineated, and further pissed off to the point where they’re appending their names to that lawsuit. Yes, this show’s quality is a far cry from that of Mad Men, but we’re starved for genuinely mad women on TV, a paucity that I’d like to see filled by even corniest depiction of a feminist revolt.

The pilot also offers a glimmer of insight into our current atmosphere of “Lean In” feminism. Yes, the frustrated ambitions of smart, creative, relatively privileged women powered the most noted gains in the feminist movement. But solidarity, the kinds of bonds you see the women forming as the episode comes to an end, is discussed less than individuals “breaking the class ceiling.” If it gets the chance to slow down and linger, Good Girls Revolt would be wise to explore the connection between individual ambition and collective action.

The Good Girls Revolt pilot will be available for free viewing on Amazon beginning Thursday.