review

The Girls on the Bus is too shallow to be a political drama

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
The Girls on the Bus is adapted from Am Chozick's memoirs, Chasing Hillary.
The Girls on the Bus is adapted from Am Chozick's memoirs, Chasing Hillary. Credit: Nicole Rivelli/Max/Binge

With the 2024 US election circus already underway, all this talk of caucuses, primaries and candidates’ stump speeches puts us in the mood for a West Wing rewatch. Especially when The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, Matthew Santos and Arnold Vinick are more enticing prospects than the real-life contenders.

Let’s be honest, even James Brolin’s dim-witted Governor Robert Ritchie is looking pretty good right now. If the worst thing about Ritchie was, “Crime, boy. I don’t know,” that’s not so bad, right? At least he hadn’t been indicted for any. Oh, how the bar has changed.

But if you’re not looking to sink 100 hours into the West Wing again, new series The Girls on the Bus should, in theory, give you a hit. It has the right premise and the right promise.

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Based on former The New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s memoirs, Chasing Hillary, The Girls on the Bus is a fictional drama about four women – three journalists and one social media influencer – on the campaign trail.

The Girls on the Bus is adapted from Am Chozick's memoirs, Chasing Hillary.
The Girls on the Bus is streaming on Binge. Credit: Nicole Rivelli/Max/Binge

There’s Sadie (Melissa Benoist), a young reporter for The New York Sentinel (clearly standing in for NYT) who pushes against the purely objective journalism model in favour of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo style, and Grace (Carla Gugino), an old-school gun reporter for a paper of record (presumably the Washington Post) who breaks stories, doesn’t do puff pieces and tells her daughter that her work will be the first line of the first line of her obituary while her kid will be the last (she speaks the truth).

There’s also Kimberlyn (Christina Elmore), an African American TV reporter and devotee of Reaganomics working for the show’s equivalent of Fox News, where she knows her colleagues are racist but at least “they’re open about it”. And, finally, Lola (Natasha Behnam), an influencer with 6.5 million followers after becoming a survivor of a school shooting – she’s the most interesting of the bunch.

The Girls on the Bus is fizzy and brisk, light on its feet. But The West Wing it ain’t. There’s no real exchange of ideas or any discussion, rapid-fire or otherwise, about policy. And barely even politics.

There are a range of candidates in the series, including a firecracker socialist that evokes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and an action star actor who decided to run after surveys suggested people would vote for him no matter which party he ran for (obviously a reference to Dwayne Johnson).

Four episodes in, not one of the candidates has any discernible policy positions. How is the audience supposed to understand why Sadie was so hot on Felicity Walker’s (Hetienne Park) candidacy when the writers haven’t given her anything to stand for? That doesn’t just make Walker look lightweight, it makes Sadie a thinly written character.

The Girls on the Bus is adapted from Am Chozick's memoirs, Chasing Hillary.
Melissa Benoist was previously best known for her role as TV’s Supergirl. Credit: Nicole Rivelli/Max/Binge

Everyone is an archetype. It’s hoping viewers will be able to figure out their real-world inspirations as a shortcut for depth, rather than do the work in the show.

In its defence, it’s not trying to be The West Wing. The Girls on the Bus is more in the realm of The Bold Type or a less dramatic Scandal. It’s diversion and distraction. It has no more insight into politics and the media than Younger had into publishing or The Bold Type into journalism.

In a different universe, this is what Gilmore Girls season eight might’ve been, following Rory on Barack Obama’s election bus, except now we know (thanks to the revival series) that she would’ve been an incompetent fool and every political reporter would’ve hated her – for good reason. (Actually, I want to watch that show.)

The Girls on the Bus may be a series set in the world of journalism and politics but it is about neither.

The Girls on the Bus is adapted from Am Chozick's memoirs, Chasing Hillary.
Lola is the most interesting character on the show. Credit: Nicole Rivelli/Max/Binge

The two fields serve as a framework for what it’s really interested in – exploring female dynamics in the workplace. It’s not great at this but at least it’s attempting something resembling substance, and pairing together two characters of different generations in Sadie and Grace without the usual age-gap warfare is refreshing.

Mostly, it’s interested in delivering a story that has to rely on sex scandals, betrayals and cliffhangers to get you to come back for more.

It’s too much to hope that its underdeveloped characters and storylines is commentary on the shallowness of political discourse in 2024. Really, it’s just lazy writing.

The Girls on the Bus is streaming on Binge

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