The Bold Type pays as much attention to the details of modern journalism as Mad Men did to the fine points of 1960s advertising, which is not a sentence you’d necessarily expect to read after watching a trailer. Created by Sarah Watson, and inspired by the career of former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, this excellent Freeform series focuses on three young women working for a Cosmo-type mag called Scarlet. The series aims for a warm, light tone, often throws a spotlight on clothes, shoes, hair, and makeup, and always circles back to its core theme of the importance of female bonding and empowerment in a male-dominated world. The result has inevitably been compared to Sex and the City and Younger, to name just two shows built around New York single women. Not only does The Bold Type merit those comparisons, it courts them with intelligence and feeling, never shying away from cathartic montages scored with “You go, girl!” needle drops. But nestled within the formula is a surprisingly granular drama about workplace politics and journalistic ethics in the age of digital media.
Scarlet chases clicks while trying to produce substantive journalism about women’s issues and keep its glossy print edition afloat via the usual mix of celebrity profiles, sex and makeup and health tips, lavish fashion spreads, and ads for clothes, shoes, makeup, and perfume. Most of The Bold Type takes place in and around the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Scarlet’s parent company, Steinem Publications (named for you know who). The action revolves around three besties: writer Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), a self-effacing wunderkind, becomes Scarlet’s social media director; Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy) starts out as an editorial assistant but eventually finds herself overseeing high-stakes fashion shoots; and Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens) works as a quasi-confessional sex writer but yearns to break news as a real reporter, and ends season one doing a version of the Peggy Olson power walk, leaving Steinem HQ with a box of her things to write a digital “column” for upstart pop-feminist publication Incite.
The show’s authority figure, Scarlet editor-in-chief Jacqueline Carlyle (The Office’s Melora Hardin, in one of TV’s best supporting performances), is introduced as a cousin of Meryl Streep’s Anna Wintour caricature in The Devil Wears Prada. She turns out to be a 21st-century female answer to Ed Asner’s title character in the classic newspaper series Lou Grant, or John Houseman in the law school drama The Paper Chase. She takes her boss mask off briefly near the end of season one, speaking to the younger women, Jane in particular, as a fellow professional who’s endured her own version of their struggle. In the season-one finale “Carry the Weight,” Jacqueline pushes Jane to write a piece about a young rape survivor who’s been standing in Central Park holding scales of justice — a piece she’d discouraged Jane from writing earlier because she thought she wasn’t seasoned enough to do it justice. After joining the protest in the park, she goes on the record with a #MeToo story: Jacqueline was raped by a superior in the late ‘90s, but did not report it because there were no witnesses, and an accusation “would have ended my career or defined it.”
Such darker moments are carried along by a steady stream of sharp observations about 21st-century media, including the volatility of digital publishing, the Herculean effort required to make print editions pay for themselves, and the constant threat of being laid off if somebody in the executive suite panics over a bad quarterly earnings report. (Many Steinem employees lost their jobs in season one to budget cuts, including the entire staff of Scarlet’s sister magazine Porch and Garden.) A season-two story about Jane’s profile of a small-business owner who manufactures menstrual cups shows what happens when a reporter goes on an assignment expecting to do a puff piece and ends up writing an investigative feature that could ruin her subject’s business and reputation. It’s another illustration of social media’s role in public drama; the story’s ending is fair to everyone involved, even as it concedes that the internet won’t be.
In a TV landscape that’s increasingly clever about integrating Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text conversations, and push notifications into storytelling, The Bold Type stands out as the most accurate portrait of what it feels like to get swept up in social media tempests that, as Kat says, usually subside within 24 hours, unless they don’t. Many of the scenes that deal with Jane’s writing, Kat’s promotional gambits, and the reaction to Sutton’s fashion sense come back to likes, shares, and comments; metrics and uniques and “stickiness.” The series is sympathetic to older generations’ worries that virtual smog is subsuming the material world, but accepts that this is where civilization is headed. In the season-one story about the rape activist, Jacqueline fretted that Jane’s livestream coverage of the woman’s Central Park protest showed empty or depopulated frames. “No one’s showing up,” she said. “This is how they show up,” Kat says, referring to the stats under the image. “They leave a comment or send a hug emoji.” In season two, Kat faces a board of directors that wants Scarlet’s print and digital operations to widen their demographic nets. Kat argues that they’d do better if they tightened them. Throughout the scene, The Bold Type makes you aware that Kat is the only person of color, one of a handful of women (including Jacqueline), and the only person under 30 in the room. Most of the board consists of older white men who are inclined to second-guess anything Kat says.
The Bold Type also has a knack for balancing youth-focused melodrama and detailed explorations of journalistic conundrums, old and new. Season-one plotlines dealt with the art of reframing a story when a primary source won’t consent to an interview, the fine points of defamation law, the debilitating psychological effects of sexist internet trolling, and the ethics of office hookups. That last arc was perfectly calibrated, ironic and suspenseful without seeming cheap: Early in season one, Sutton fell for Scarlet board member Richard Hunter (Sam Page), a man 15 years her senior; in a later episode, the company refined its HR policy to require statements of mutual consent from employees in sexual relationships, and Sutton found herself sitting across from Richard in a boardroom, being interrogated about a fling with another co-worker, Alex Crawford (Matt Ward). The notion of office consent declarations as a form of sexual amnesty — a confession that waves off HR inquisitors and insulates employers against lawsuits — was dramatized with compassion, taking Sutton, Richard, and Alex’s emotions into account.
Another smart subplot found Sutton wrestling with whether to tell Jacqueline the truth about a fashion shoot she had to rescue after her assistant, who’d been placed in charge for the first time, cratered under pressure. Although the assistant took credit to undermine Sutton and impress Jacqueline, Sutton let her get away with it; after Jacqueline found out, she reprimanded Sutton for caving. The takeaway was that women should try to have each other’s backs in the workplace, unless one of them is lying about their capabilities or taking credit for work they didn’t do — tactics that are bad for feminism as well as business, and that treat other women as human shields.
Without stinting on workplace drama, The Bold Type makes plenty of space for stories about sex, love, and self-discovery. The most compelling are Sutton’s relationship with Sam, who in season two pushes her to go public with their relationship for true love’s sake, even though she has far more to lose than he does (“I make in a year what you take home in a week,” she says); and Kat’s exploration of her status as a bisexual, biracial woman.
Kat’s season-two stories are standouts. Season one saw Kat flowering in a relationship with a lesbian Iranian activist-photographer, Adena El Amin (Nikohl Boosheri), and finally joining her overseas. Now, Kat returns from visiting Adena’s homeland and wants to push their relationship further along; Adena balks because she’s worried that Kat is more interested in working through her own issues and announcing her relationship status to the world than doing the tedious but necessary work of being in a partnership (which includes frank conversations about what happens in bed). Kat wonders whether she’s “really queer” or if “this whole relationship has been a lie.” Race, a subject that season one dealt with only glancingly, moves to the center here, by way of Alex, a onetime khaki-wearing, clean-shaven Joe College type who shows up in season two rocking a sexy associate poetry professor’s wardrobe and wooly scruff, and pushing Kat to identify as black; and Kat’s white mother and black father, who are cordial towards Adena but don’t seem entirely comfortable with her.
What puts everything across, even more than the likable performances and efficient storytelling, is the series’ understated authority. Without relinquishing the escapist pleasures that the audience wants, it convinces you that the people who make The Bold Type are grounding the story in lived reality, not just secondhand research. My favorite example can be found in the season-one episode “The End of the Beginning,” when Jacqueline asks Kat to convene a makeshift focus group of readers to provide insights that will armor Jacqueline for meetings with higher-ups who are pressing her for layoffs. Kat suggests hitting Times Square, specifically the Sex and the City locations tour, which starts there; Jacqueline adds “Magnolia Bakery” to Kat’s list. Magnolia Bakery, now an international chain, became a household word outside of New York by virtue of its appearances in films and TV shows set in New York — Sex and the City in particular — because it put the bakery at the center of one of its most memorable episodes. So what we have here is a throwaway reference that accurately represents what women in Kat and Jacqueline’s jobs would discuss in this type of situation, that can be processed and understood in context by any viewer (even if they’ve never set foot in New York or watched a frame of Sex and the City), and that doesn’t announce itself as a self-aware nod to the TV lineage of The Bold Type. It even seems likely that Jacqueline blurted out the words “Magnolia Bakery” because Kat’s mention of Sex and the City made her think of the cupcake episode. Like The Bold Type itself, this brief exchange isn’t good drama, it’s good journalism.