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‘The Girls on the Bus’ Review: Max’s ‘Chasing Hillary’ Adaptation Earns Affection and Eye Rolls in Nearly Equal Measure

Inspired by, but definitely not closely adapted from, Amy Chozick’s 2018 book Chasing Hillary, The Girls on the Bus may be on Max, but it’s a throwback to a certain type of broad, big-hearted, semi-topical dramedy that TV fans used to associate with The WB.

As a female-forward workplace buddy comedy with soapy undertones, The Girls on the Bus (Chozick and The Vampire Diaries mastermind Julie Plec are credited as creators) is quite good — the casting is strong, the character dynamics appealing. As a show about journalism, The Girls on the Bus is decent — smart about a lot of things, dumb about others, but not disproportionately. As a political thriller, The Girls on the Bus is mostly a crock.

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It comes together as a whole that’s not really a guilty pleasure — for the millionth time, stop being guilty about the things you like — but definitely one where you have to wade through eye-rolling moments to get to the things that are enjoyable. If the former causes you to check out and miss the latter, you won’t make it past the pilot. Me, I was generally amused and irritated all at once by The Girls on the Bus.

Set in an alternate version of 2024 in which people still obstinately refer to “Twitter,” The Girls on the Bus begins with our four protagonists arriving in Iowa at the start of a contentious Democratic primary process.

First among non-equals is Sadie (Melissa Benoist), reporter for the prestigious New York Sentinel. Sadie aspires to deeply personal semi-gonzo journalism — Hunter S. Thompson (P.J. Sosko) speaks to her regularly in a way that is probably weirder than the show wants to pretend — but Sadie’s editor (Griffin Dunne) urges her to be more journalistically objective, especially after she went viral in 2020 for crying after her favored candidate (Hettienne Park’s Felicity Walker) lost. Sadie has another problem: Her favorite hookup from the last election cycle (Brandon Scott’s “Loafers”) has become a press secretary for a major candidate and therefore an ethical no-no.

Sadie’s best friend from the last election cycle was Grace (Carla Gugino), a battle-tested veteran of the political circus who has prioritized breaking scoops over her husband (Scott Cohen) and college-aged daughter (Rose Jackson-Smith). Because they’re “legacy” media, Sadie and Grace look down on Kimberlyn (Christina Elmore), a rising star with a repugnant fictional right-wing cable network that viewers might be inclined to compare to Fox News. And everybody looks down on Lola (Natasha Behnam), a social media star who uses her platform to cheerlead for a Socialist candidate and shill for her sponsors.

The candidates on the trail mostly aren’t named and they’re presented as archetypes — The Geriatric, The Freshman, The Hot White Guy, etc. But viewers smart enough to identify the cable network as Fox-esque will find it easy to recognize them as Fake AOC (Tala Ashe), Fake Mayor Pete (Scott Foley), Fake Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mark Consuelos), Fake Joe Biden (Richard Bekins) and Fake Hillary (Park).

Part of me is inclined to wonder if it might have been possible to make The Girls on the Bus as more of a straightforward adaptation of Chozick’s book. Obviously you’d fictionalize elements, but you’d trust that the inherent drama of the election cycle — run-of-the-mill scandals of various sizes, drama with editors, internal bickering among similar personalities squished into a tour bus — was enough to carry a show. Would anybody make that show?

If the producing team behind The Girls on the Bus, which also features Greg Berlanti among others, isn’t powerful enough to do that no-frills version, probably nobody is. Certainly this version doesn’t have the confidence to just let its basic story stand on its own, because opening with a seven-months-later tease — putting the “media” in “in medias res” — The Girls on the Bus attempts to shoehorn a ’70s-style paranoid thriller into the series.

I could graft six cadaver arms onto my pal Alan, but that wouldn’t make him an octopus, and telling me that by the end of the season Sadie and her pals are going to be on the run from people in prominently labeled “FBI” jackets doesn’t make The Girls on the Bus a ’70s-style paranoid thriller. Every aspect of the thriller plot, which escalates so much that by the 10th and final episode it’s all that’s left, is derivative and unconvincing, and there are enough silly moments in the finale that I find it hard to believe the writers were finding it convincing anymore, either.

Unfortunately, the finale sets into motion a potential second season that would be entirely conspiracy thriller-based. Equally unfortunately, I’m exactly curious enough that I would watch that second season just to find out how things progress. But mostly that’s because of my positive feelings for the rest of the show.

It all revolves around Benoist, who cemented her everywoman bona fides on The CW’s Supergirl and is very good at playing the sort of character who clings to dewy innocence long after suffering the slings and arrows of the real world. She’s one of those heroines sure to make you yell, “Stop doing dumb things!” at the screen, but she spends a lot of time yelling, “Stop doing dumb things!” at herself, so she knows. Sadie is prone to enough hallucinations and erratic fantasy sequences that it would be tempting to call her “Ally McHowardBeale,” except that it’s another character who gets the very self-conscious — everything in The Girls on the Bus is very self-conscious — “I’m mad as hell!” moment.

As individuals, each of the “girls” is saddled with a cringe-y secondary plotline. Grace’s daughter is out of control, which at least pays off nicely. Kimberlyn is attempting to plan a wedding to hunky Eric (Kyle Vincent Terry) on the road, which never becomes anything other than irksome. Etc.

But when they’re together and in different permutations, the characters and actresses are all excellent. The Sadie/Grace friendship is the show’s heart, and Benoist’s wide-eyed hopefulness and Gugino’s harder-edged cynicism come together as a perfect rapport. Gugino and Elmore both shine as Grace and Kimberlyn bicker along journalistic lines, while Gugino and Behnam get to play out an unexpectedly sweet evolving bond.

Yes, what I’m saying here is that Benoist may be the top-billed star (and producer) on the show (and she may be very good), but it’s Gugino who’s the show’s glue, making everything better. I’d still give Behnam and Elmore a lot of credit for taking roles that are almost guaranteed to annoy you in the pilot and making them sympathetic by mid-season.

The supporting cast is very good as well, especially Foley and Park as the most interesting of the background candidates. Dunne is stuck with a character who exists only to bark out caring-but-gruff journalistic platitudes, but he’s fully committed, and once I decided that whenever he gets off the phone with Sadie, he’s calling up Peter Parker to demand pictures of Spider-Man, I came to like him.

I compared The Girls on the Bus to a vintage WB/CW show and the writing and directing roster is packed with veterans from those shows, including Plec, Berlanti, Rina Mimoun and Marcos Siega. Episodes all run between 42 and 49 minutes and, in terms of length and content, any of them could be trimmed for broadcast with ease.

The show is intended for an audience that needs most of its journalistic terminology defined in the dialogue. But at least it takes the effort to do that, just as it takes the effort to name drop a lot of specific real-world journalists and politicians in a way that might lead some viewers to do additional research.

The Girls on the Bus is able to throw in topical discussions of abortion, sexist inequities in media and the state of electoral politics in 2024. And if references to classics like Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes and Theodore White’s The Making of a President 1968 get a single viewer to head to their local library or independent book store, that makes up for a lot of cheesy romance, clunky drama, and predictable twists and turns.

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