The Bold Type, a new series set at a Cosmopolitan-like magazine in New York City, is the best surprise of the TV year so far. It’s part journalism drama, part Sex and the City–style female-bonding comedy with sex and romance; it’s equally interested in being both things at once, to the best of its ability, and damned if it doesn’t pull it off more often than you’d think. The show starts tonight on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). Created by Sara Watson, a writer on Parenthood, it keeps putting its central trio of women — Katie Stevens, Meghann Fahy, and Aisha Dee as 20-something besties working at Scarlet magazine — in situations that could seem familiar, even hackneyed, on other shows. But then it surprises you by exploring the heroines’ conflicts from a fresh angle, then ending things on an unresolved or bittersweet note.
It’s also a rare series with a feel for how journalism of all types is actually made in 2017. The heroines’ outlet is upper-echelon: a so-called “legacy” media organization that still produces a glossy print magazine as well as a website and videos, and that apparently has sufficient budget (thanks to covering the visuals-driven fashion industry) to foot the bill for a big staff, a sprawling office, and perks that most click-stained wretches don’t get no matter where they work (such as a vast wardrobe closet that gets raided for fashion shoots but also used for impromptu private conferences and, um, other activities). Sutton (Fahy), Kat (Dee), and Jane (Stevens) are introduced working together in the editorial department, but this isn’t permanent. One of the unexpected pleasures here is the genuine curiosity that The Bold Type displays about these women’s career choices, and how they do or do not get them closer to their dreams, whatever they may be.
As shiny and sumptuous as The Bold Type is — with its young, gorgeous, impeccably dressed core cast, and its Carrie Bradshaw daydream-vision of what it means to be a New York journalist (dating hot guys, wearing great footwear, having sex in apartments with eye-boggling views) — it respects journalism as work, in a way that more outwardly “serious” narratives about the profession sometimes don’t. There’s a scene in an upcoming episode where a story that Jane is excited about falls through when she’s denied access to the subject. After licking her wounds, she realizes she can write a more original, attention-getting piece by fusing the handful of fresh quotes she was able to obtain with the wealth of material that’s already available online. Sutton, meanwhile, ends up being interviewed for a job by a boss (Sam Page of Mad Men) whom she’s furtively sleeping with but hopes to legitimately date one day. The Bold Type is reasonable in how it deals with this breach, noting that the situation is unacceptable, but also that it happens all the time, often without anyone else knowing, because participants realize the penalties that’ll accrue if the truth gets out.
The series is also scrupulous about insisting that this is the story of women, one in which men are lovers, friends, foils, or unpredictable X factors. The male characters are never caricatured — in fact there are points where the show cuts them more slack than they probably deserve. But the show’s gaze, as well as its worldview, are stringently female. This is emphasized by a pop-driven soundtrack dominated by women vocalists, but also by the attention it pays to subtle emotions that women pick up on immediately even as they sail right over the heads of men.
The trio’s acting teamwork jells right away, and they’re equally effective in solo scenes. Kat gets the most compelling story lines at first, becoming so obsessed with a left-wing Muslim lesbian photographer (Nikohl Boosheri) that she starts to question her own supposed straightness, and writing a misogynist troll-baiting piece online and then wondering how long she can withstand a wave of anonymous rape threats without crumbling. The other two leads deepen over time, in less dynamic but equally convincing ways. It’s clear right away that Sutton isn’t someone who’s invested in the grunt work of journalism, or even the most fun parts of the fashion-magazine biz; she’d be better used elsewhere in the organization, but neither she nor her friends know where that might be. Jane, meanwhile, strains to mold herself into a particular kind of writer rather than developing her innate but still unformed natural talents. “I don’t want my writing about sex to be my brand,” she says, which is a bummer for Jane because her writing about sex is both good and popular.
Speaking of Jane’s creative struggles: Best in show goes to the character’s top boss and Scarlet’s editor-in-chief, Jacqueline Carlyle, played by Melora Hardin, a.k.a. Jane Levinson from The Office. It’s refreshing to see the female boss of a major publication portrayed not as a pampered cult leader or a hateful witch on wheels, but simply as a quietly charismatic person who’s great at what she does and derives her power from balancing polite bluntness and tactical silence. The most exciting moments in any of the episodes are the ones where Jacqueline asks a question or makes a demand that an employee didn’t anticipate, then waits patiently for an answer, her mouth fixed in an expression that you wouldn’t dare call a smile for fear that you might be wrong. Hardin walks off with every scene she’s in, often in fabulous shoes: The series introduces her via her feet, which are laced up in red cage heels.
The character is supposedly based on Cosmpolitan’s chief content officer Joanna Coles — and that’s how this series was originally pitched in early press releases, for whatever reason — but Watson and her collaborators treat the character more like John Houseman on The Paper Chase: as a combination supervisor, aspirational figure, and teacher, best used in small but potent doses. Unlike many TV mentor characters, though, Jacqueline’s words of wisdom are actually wise. “You have this idea of the kind of writer you should be,” she tells Jane, “but don’t let it keep you from the kind of writer you could be.” I have no idea what this show eventually could be, but I have faith in the people who make it. Not too many shamelessly entertaining series are as smart as this one.