Journalism could use a smart show about reporting

March 14, 2024 1:19 pm

[Source: CNN Entertainment]

Journalists have endured a seemingly endless parade of bad news of late, with layoffs and closings announced on a near-daily basis as venerable outlets and digital start-ups face harsh economic realities.

The profession could use an image boost, in the way “All the President’s Men” highlighted reporting’s noblest ideals in the 1970s.

Such a series might come along, but “The Girls on the Bus” clearly isn’t it; nor, perhaps, was it intended to be. Rather, the new Max series joins a long line of projects that take the backdrop of journalism and turn it into at best a frothy soap opera – a la Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show” – and at worst an ethical twilight zone.

Article continues after advertisement

“Girls” proves more disheartening on a journalistic level because the show was ostensibly inspired by a 2018 book by then-New York Times reporter Amy Chozick, “Chasing Hillary,” documenting her time covering Hillary Clinton.

As very, very loosely adapted for TV by Chozick and Julie Plec (“The Vampire Diaries”), working with another CW veteran in producer Greg Berlanti, “Girls on the Bus” devolves into a CW-style drama that occasionally addresses the slow death of journalism on the most perfunctory level.

The main character, Sadie McCarthy (“Supergirl’s” Melissa Benoist), works for a respected newspaper, with a harried editor and mentor (Griffin Dunne) prodding her by phone as she hits the road.

She’s assigned to cover the presidential campaign, traveling with a trio of female journalists who each essentially check boxes instead of representing flesh-and-blood characters.

They consist of Kimberlyn (Christina Elmore), an ambitious reporter for a Fox News-like conservative network, who is frequently challenged about its practices; Grace (Carla Gugino), a seen-it-all veteran political reporter ignoring problems at home; and Lola (Natasha Behnam), a social-media-savvy young influencer who posts videos (and ad content) for her army of followers, when not engaging in stilted ethical arguments by saying things like, “Print is dead. Cable is for old people.”

If that weren’t enough, Sadie is regularly visited by the ghost of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (P.J. Sosko), debating the merits and excesses of the bad old days – exemplified by “The Boys on the Bus,” the book about the 1972 campaign – versus the state of journalism today.

Sadie also keeps telling anyone who’ll listen how good she is at the job, despite the fact she keeps doing highly questionable things.

Historically the practice of journalism doesn’t lend itself terribly well to drama, what with the staring into computers (or in “All the President’s Men’s” case, typewriters) and banging on doors.

As a result, movies and TV tend to take plenty of creative liberties to spice up the narrative, from Sally Field’s reporter in “Absence of Malice” to the misguided “Up Close and Personal,” which put Robert Redford (along with Michelle Pfeiffer) back in the newsroom.

That hasn’t prevented several good movies showcasing the profession, including the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” and “Shattered Glass,” a look at journalistic fabulist Stephen Glass and the process of exposing him.

The work of New York Times reporters also inspired “She Said,” about covering producer Harvey Weinstein.

On television, we’ve had Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” which became too enamored with office romances, while the final season of HBO’s “The Wire” brilliantly worked the decline of the local newspaper into its plot, making the case for how civic institutions can erode when there’s nobody to hold them accountable.

Productions like those remain rare, but given the times and timing one might have still hoped for better from “The Girls on the Bus.”

Because at a moment when journalism would benefit from any kind of morale lift, the last thing it needs is another broadly drawn series that seems to put a spotlight on the profession’s principles before backing over them.

“The Girls on the Bus” premieres March 14 on Max, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.