History suggests you could probably tap the memories of any number of veteran reporters and wizened paragraph-factory residents and still not come up with a workable TV drama set in a newsroom. Amazon sees things differently.
The video-streaming service just launched a new pilot for “Good Girls Revolt,” a drama that uses the backdrop of a big national weekly magazine to look not just at young scribblers jockeying to cover the biggest events of the 1960s and 1970s, but also gender politics and the changing of America’s cultural guard. The evidence that the series’ milieu can be a tough one to depict is strong: Yes, TV can point to the success of “Lou Grant” in the 1970s and early 1980s, but other programs like CBS’ “New York News” – cancelled after two months in 1995 due to low ratings – or HBO’s “The Newsroom” – beset during its three-season span by critics’ brickbats – point to the difficulty. Journalism can inspire many great TV stories, but it has not always been an element that lures viewers to a show.
“Hollywood is notorious for rejecting journalism shows,” said Dana Calvo, the show’s creator and one of its executive producers (in full disclosure, this reporter worked alongside Calvo as a news clerk in the Washington Bureau of the New York Times in the mid-1990s). “The phrase you always hear, which doesn’t entirely make sense to me, is that reporters are reactive,” and don’t make for good characters. “I would not say they are reactive,” said Calvo, who spent time working as a reporter for the Associated Press, Sun-Sentinel of Florida and The Los Angeles Times. “They try to stay on top of the story. They try to do the smart story.”
The secret to “Good Girls Revolt,” perhaps, is that the smart story the reporters are trying to do is bigger than the journalism they are assigned. The drama depicts a staff of editors and reporters at the fictional “News of the Week” a newsweekly chronicling the turn of the decade from the 1960s to the 1970s. It was a time when newsweeklies helped shape the national conversation, rather than being subsumed by it as they are today. In 1969, the men are reporters who get all the glory, while the women are researchers who are often cheated of it.
The time the show depicts “is an unbelievably epochal moment,” said Lynda Obst, an executive producer on the series, when people were seeing radical change in cultural attitudes as well as fashion and music. In the show, the female characters often outmaneuver their male counterparts and yet continue to face what would now be considered massively antiquated notions of their place in society. A fictionalized version of the writer Nora Ephron, played by Grace Gummer, quits the magazine after not getting proper credit for her work on a story. Another character, Patti Robinson, played by Genevieve Angelson (pictured, above, standing), is a better reporter than many of the men, yet gets pushback from a journalist she is dating when she wants to devote more time to her occupation.
By the end of the pilot, it’s clear these roles can’t remain in stasis. “I could see why that would be fascinating to contemporary women and men, who are still experiencing these social changes in terms of gender, in terms of sex,” noted Obst.
The show is inspired by the Lynn Povich book “The Good Girls Revolt,” which tells the story of how 46 female employees at Newsweek sued the influential media outlet, charging the magazine with discrimination in hiring and promotion. The author was loath to let the book be transformed into a media property, said Obst, who spent “a good six months” convincing Povich the story would be treated well. “ I think she had never really seen the newspaper world in television done properly,” Obst said. The producer’s background – she worked for a time as an editor at The New York Times Magazine- gave Povich some comfort.
To set the proper mood, executives had to revive a newsroom that no longer exists. Calvo wanted “the sounds of people talking and typing and phones ringing” – noise that is largely missing from places now outfitted with digital equipment and electronically disseminated news. Actors spent a day typing on manual typewriters, feeding paper into the machines and using White-Out on errors. They also learned to cradle the heavy receivers of rotary phones in their neck as they typed, Calvo recalled.
Getting the little details right has become de rigueur as more TV and streaming-video outlets try their hand with dramas focused on a narrow but dynamic part of American history. AMC’s “Mad Men” seems to be the obvious example, but the network these days is continuing the run of “Halt and Catch Fire,” a drama set in the early days of the computer revolution of the early 1980s. NBC has ordered multiple seasons of 1960s crime drama “Aquarius.” And FX”s “The Americans” has gained critical acclaim.
The dramas seem to work because they attract a passionate fan base, if not always the largest one. That exuberance can translate to viral pass-along among viewers and fans, and, in some cases, resonance among consumers for new video brands, like Amazon. Calvo said she has planned as much as three seasons’ worth of story for “Good Girls.” Now all she needs is strong reaction from Amazon viewers who would like to see more.