It’s almost impossible to consider “Good Girls Revolt,” a workplace drama about women suing for equality in the late ’60s, without recalling AMC’s “Mad Men,” a show that brought the decade to life with gorgeous and resonant style. “Good Girls Revolt” owes much to its predecessor, which is one of the few period shows that actually found a way to make its era feel lived-in, not costume drama. Perhaps without “Mad Men’s” chilling depiction of Peggy Olson’s first day of work, the institutional subordination of women in the workplace would feel like a pesky origin myth — neither relevant nor real — to whole generations of the viewing public. “Mad Men” made that sexism brilliantly inescapable, excavating the past to bear on the present.
The new Amazon Studios drama takes “Mad Men’s” interest in workplace gender dynamics and expands that lens to make it the entire show. “Good Girls Revolt” has created the most evocative illustration of stylish, well-heeled sexism since “Mad Men,” an atmosphere charged with both nostalgia for the era and a reminder of what really went with all the day drinking and bouffants. The drama is based on the real story of how women at Newsweek (changed to the fictional News of the Week, for the show) filed a complaint with the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging their employers with widespread, institutional gender discrimination. It was for all concerns a lot like what was depicted at Sterling Cooper in “Mad Men”: Women employees were relegated to a very specific role, without opportunity for advancement.
As “Good Girls Revolt” depicts it, the men got bylines while the women did most of, if not all of, the actual work — in the glorified secretary position of “researcher.” The newsroom is unsubtly split-level; the men sit on an elevated platform, while the women crowd together in “the pit,” a half-flight of stairs down. In the wide open room where all of the gossip and drama happens, the gender hierarchy is just a part of the construction. It’s a bit literal, to be sure— but then again, sexism, especially in that era, is a rather blunt tool. The women occasionally discover whole paragraphs of their work lifted straight into a male collaborator’s work, or are forced to do all of the grunt reporting while their reporter makes a few phone calls and then gets all the credit. Some reporters are constantly asking their researchers to go out with them; others joke about waist sizes and bra sizes when considering which “girl” to hire.
It’s breathtakingly punishing. But “Good Girls Revolt” doesn’t rest with establishing the group dynamics; it pursues the individual, complex reporter/researcher relationships, where the imbalance of power becomes a particularly intimate struggle for power and respect between two people who are working partners. At times, the reporter and researcher reach a state of true collaboration, lush with mutual respect and shared sense of mission. But it’s an illusion of equality that rests solely on the male reporter’s sense of goodwill. Professional jealousy, differences of opinion, and perceived or real romantic slights inspire the men to assert their power — sending their brilliant researchers scurrying back to making coffee, gathering rote data, or worst of all, merely continuing to be ignored and overlooked. That so many of these relationships are romantically charged — in situations that are either long-running sexual harassment or breakroom flirtations turned into late-night flings — just reinforces how similar this imbalanced partnership is to the most traditional notion of marriage, where efficiency depends on the woman’s subservience to the man’s name and reputation. “Good Girls Revolt” is not polemical, but in ferreting out the layered ways sexism affects relations between men and women, it is the consciousness-raising that it also seeks to depict.
The show is not perfect. At times, “Good Girls Revolt” can be very smart about the themes of the ‘60s; at others, it can be painfully obvious. (Let’s pledge to never use Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” ever again, shall we?) Aside from the production values, which are pleasantly immersive, the production is serviceable, with just enough talent in the machine to keep everything running smoothly. Grace Gummer (wearing a terrible wig to play Nora Ephron) and a pitch-perfect Jim Belushi are welcome injections of talent. The drama suffers from an overcrowded cast and not much economy of storytelling — mostly because it seeks to make a character drama out of a plot with a clear beginning and end. It takes a couple of hours before lead Patti (Genevieve Angelson) even gets around to first meeting with Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant, playing the real-life and still-living legend) of the ACLU.
But with a show that is as much about atmosphere as plot, some sprawl can be forgiven. “Good Girls Revolt” quickly settles into an addictive rhythm, drawing the audience into the unromantic, intimate process of individual radicalization, as women from very different worldviews find themselves agreeing with their colleagues that enough is enough. The show cares about these specific experiences of growth and empowerment — both their triumphs and their missteps. And in depicting young women tasting their independence and sexual power for the first time in New York City, “Good Girls Revolt” presents “Mad Men” with a healthy dash of the freewheeling play of “Broad City” — joints on the coffee table, adventures in birth control, the indignities of periods and peeing, and reading erotica on public transit. The characters are experiencing for the first time the unglamorous grace notes of modern female existence that are still very recognizable today — albeit in what looks to be far less comfortable underwear.