'The Girls on the Bus' Review: Max Comedy

The Max series “The Girls on the Bus” wants to be a frothy workplace comedy about female empowerment. Such proudly escapist fluff has a valued place on TV; “The Bold Type” got five seasons out of its more optimistic spin on “The Devil Wears Prada,” and while “Glamorous” was quickly canceled by Netflix, it had the right idea in casting Kim Cattrall as an exacting makeup mogul. There’s no reason “The Girls on the Bus” couldn’t slot into this tradition of slickly produced, deceptively mindless entertainment, apart from one small detail: it’s set in the world of high-stakes presidential campaigns, possibly the least escapist environment possible in 2024.

Co-created by veteran showrunner Julie Plec (“The Vampire Diaries”) and journalist Amy Chozick, “The Girls on the Bus” is a loose riff on “Chasing Hillary,” Chozick’s 2018 memoir about covering the Clinton campaign for the New York Times. A factual adaptation of the book, including said campaign’s conclusion, would likely have to be a horror movie. So Plec and Chozick instead create an alternate universe that’s stranded between pure fabulism and its obvious inspiration. “The Girls in the Bus” has nothing to say about the real world, abdicating any attempt at actual insight into politics or media. But it’s unable to build a new reality that’s different enough from our own to offer an outlet to those in need of distraction. The show is stuck with the worst of both worlds: its frequent silliness feels inappropriate, while its occasional grandstanding comes off as entirely out of its depth.

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Protagonist Sadie McCarthy (a conspicuously brunette Melissa Benoist) is a correspondent for the New York Sentinel, a thinly veiled version of Chozick’s former employer. But the excerpts that serve as the show’s narration sound closer to Carrie Bradshaw columns than searing reportage, with I-couldn’t-help-but-wonder style musings about why a competitive primary is just like “The Bachelor.” Sadie also idolizes gonzo pioneer Hunter S. Thompson (P.J. Sosko), who appears to her in visions to offer sage advice like “this bitch is playing you.” He’s hardly plausible as a role model, both because Sadie is a woman under the age of 55 and because she’s hardly the type to risk an overdose for content. Her editor, Bruce (Griffin Dunne), may be a recovering addict modeled after Times legend David Carr, but Sadie’s greatest journalistic sin to date has been getting too invested in the losing campaign of Clintonesque senator Felicity Walker (Hettienne Park) in the cycle prior to the start of the series.

“The Girls on the Bus” is, of course, riffing on “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s seminal account of the 1972 election in which Thompson is a major character. Sadie’s companions in the press pool, you could rightly assume, have fewer Y chromosomes than their predecessors. Grace (Carla Gugino) is a Pulitzer-winning elder stateswoman; Lola (Natasha Benham) is a dumping ground for every lazy cliché about TikTok, influencers and Gen Z the writers can come up with. Most concerning is Kimberlyn (Christina Elmore), an on-air personality at a Fox News analog whose only ideology seems to be a reverence for Ronald Reagan. Sadie isn’t the only one with an idol unbefitting of her age bracket.

Sadie and her colleagues are assigned to cover the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, all of whom are easy to identify based on description alone. In addition to Walker, there’s a veteran whose age raises questions about his fitness for office, a small-town mayor who outperforms his minimal name recognition and a celebrity whose media savvy and charm make up for his lack of experience. That last contender comes uncomfortably close to invoking the man who defeated Clinton in 2016, but “The Girls on the Bus” makes barely a mention of its in-universe incumbent, a conspicuous absence that grows stranger with each passing stump speech.

This Trump-shaped plot hole gets at how “Girls on the Bus” struggles to square its subject matter with a sunny disposition. Kimberlyn’s politics are treated as little more than a polite disagreement with her peers to be overcome by the power of friendship. (“We may have started as competitors, but we would end as a family,” Sadie intones.) This arc is made possible only by keeping Kimberlyn’s beliefs as unspecific as possible. There’s more time spent on her upcoming wedding than her policy positions; she is asked how she can work for a white nationalist network as a Black woman, but her views on LGBTQ issues, immigration and gun control remain obscure, lest they burst the show’s fictional bubble. Kimberlyn’s version of a punchy signoff is claiming that “the Democrats would rather fight each other, because they have no plan to fight for the middle class.” An actual modern-day Republican would be more likely to imply everyone across the aisle is a groomer.

“The Girls on the Bus” can’t seem to decide how much it wants to lean on the audience’s understanding of presidential campaigns or make up its own rules. There are offhand references to pussy hats and “our fragile democracy,” though neither the Women’s March nor January 6th took place in this timeline. Meanwhile, Walker’s accomplishments include passing paid family leave, a resumé that helps her hop back into the fray despite her previous defeat. Both developments read like fanfiction from center-left liberals who wish 2016 never happened — so they wrote a version of history where it didn’t. “The Girls on the Bus” even gives Walker a cartoonishly sexist heckler she can dunk on before literally burning her bra, which naturally earns her a bump in the polls.

The interpersonal elements of “The Girls on the Bus” don’t work any better than its political ones. Sadie rails against the sexist double standard applied to female reporters, including the media trope that they sleep with sources…except she does have a relationship with a press secretary that ends up crossing a line, so her speechifying falls on deaf ears. Lola makes no sense to begin with — why does a social media star need to bother with the grind of endless photo ops? — and only gets more insulting as a stereotype over time. (She shows up one morning in a bikini because she thinks the “press pool” is an actual pool.) Grace has an intriguing story line about her ambivalence as a mother, but it’s marooned in a sea of nonsense.

Arguably, it never made sense to make a political show minus the cynicism. But while “The West Wing” could get away with that approach in the (Bill) Clinton years, it’s only gotten less tenable over the years. “Veep” understood this, nailing the incompetence and ambition of the average Beltway climber; “Mr. Mayor” was zany enough to distance itself from viewers’ lived experience. “The Girls on the Bus,” though, never got the message and proceeds boldly anyway. What’s meant to be a delightful romp just comes off as pure delusion.

The first two episodes of “The Girls on the Bus” are now available to stream on Max, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Thursdays.