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“The Girls on the Bus” review: An election-year drama that won't stress you out

The new Max series is inspired by Amy Chozick's 2018 memoir, "Chasing Hillary."

Three years ago, New York Sentinel political reporter Sadie McCarthy (Melissa Benoist) cried when the candidate she was covering, Felicity Walker (Hettienne Park), lost the election — and a photo of her breakdown promptly became a meme for “liberal tears.” Now, with another election cycle on the horizon, Sadie is desperate to trail the frontrunner, Caroline Walker (Joanna Gleason), but her bosses don’t think she can be objective.

Only after begging her editor, Bruce (Griffin Dunne), for a second chance — and promising to land an exclusive interview with Walker — is Sadie allowed back on the campaign trail. Walker’s bus is packed with her competition, including Grace Gordon Greene (Carla Gugino), a dogged investigative reporter with 30 years’ experience; Kimberlyn Kendrick (Christina Elmore), an ambitious on-air correspondent for the conservative Liberty Direct News network; and Lola Rahaii (Natasha Behnam), a mass shooting survivor-turned-social justice influencer who broadcasts directly to her millions of followers via Instagram. Naturally, this eclectic quartet of women will go from skeptical strangers to soul sisters in 10 easy episodes. Can you imagine a world where legacy print media, right-wing cable news, and an extremely online Gen Z-er would work together to expose a nefarious political conspiracy? The Girls on the Bus (premiering March 14 on Max) can, and that accounts for a large part of its idealistic appeal.

<p>Nicole Rivelli/Max</p> Melissa Benoist, Carla Gugino, Christina Elmore, and Natasha Behnam in 'The Girls on the Bus'

Nicole Rivelli/Max

Melissa Benoist, Carla Gugino, Christina Elmore, and Natasha Behnam in 'The Girls on the Bus'

Fair warning: The dramedy — which was inspired by Amy Chozick’s 2018 memoir, Chasing Hillary — is often corny. There are too many earnest voice-overs (“To be a journalist is to have a calling”), and the dialogue is sometimes painfully on-the-nose. (“Sadie, you’re a great writer, but you lead with your heart,” says Bruce. “We need you to lead with your head.”) And when Sadie had her first conversation with the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson (PJ Sosko) — she idolizes him and carries a copy of Timothy Crouse’s campaign chronicle The Boys on the Bus around like a Bible — about 10 minutes into the premiere, I nearly tapped out.

Still, I stuck around, and not just out of professional obligation. Developed first for Netflix and then The CW by co-creators Chozick and Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), The Girls on the Bus depicts the world of political reporting the way early aughts rom-coms presented magazine publishing — glossy, exciting, and vital. Bruce is a classic grizzled-editor archetype, striding through the newsroom barking, “Gimme copy!” and sending inspiring emails about the importance of journalism to his devoted staff. Sadie and her peers don’t worry about mass layoffs, slashed budgets, or the encroaching threat of AI bylines. They have one job: Find and report the truth. There’s a soothing kind of nostalgia in that simplicity, especially for anyone who is stressed out (or employed) by the ever-shrinking, irreparably fractured media industry in this all-important election year.

<p>Linda Kallerus/Max</p> Scott Foley and Melissa Benoist in 'The Girls on the Bus'

Linda Kallerus/Max

Scott Foley and Melissa Benoist in 'The Girls on the Bus'

More importantly, Girls on the Bus regularly has the campaign take a backseat (sorry) to the characters’ relationship drama. When they’re not covering the race between Catherine Walker and her rivals — including a movie star (Mark Consuelos), a popular progressive congresswoman (Tala Ashe), and a telegenic Kansas mayor/veteran (Scott Foley) — the central scribes struggle with the “life” part of work-life balance. Sadie is chagrined to be thrown together with her ex, Malcolm (Brandon Scott), when he’s named the frontrunner’s spokesperson. Kimberlyn clashes with her frustrated fiancé, Eric (Kyle Vincent Terry), who thinks she’s not making enough time for wedding planning. Grace discovers the downside of her laissez-faire approach to parenting when her daughter (Rose Jackson Smith) gets suspended at school, and Lola is forced to confront her repressed anger and trauma when a magazine revisits the shooting she survived.

The show has the most fun when it lets the Girls hang out together, be it on the bus or in one of the many nondescript hotel bars they frequent along the way. Benoist, Gugino, Elmore, and Behnam gel nicely from the outset, and they bring a sharpness to their characters’ many sparring sessions over their divergent worldviews: Is gender a social construct or biological fact? Are presidential debates a civil service that showcase a candidate’s policy or just meaningless spectacle? Will this country ever put a woman in the White House? The show’s writers (a group that includes a former EW staffer, full disclosure) manage to make these scenes feel engaged and authentic rather than pedantic or cheesily optimistic.

And for all its romanticizing, Girls does take the press to task — gently — for chasing sexier stories while a plan to erode democracy unfolds in plain sight. The show waits until very late in the season to reveal the full scope of this political conspiracy, which may be why it feels like a bit of an afterthought. But the cliffhanger sets up an intriguing path for a possible season 2. (That seems to be the average lifespan for a Max series these days.) Given that our political landscape is only going to get more chaotic in the next four years, I wouldn't say no to another trip on this Bus. Grade: B

The Girls on the Bus premieres Thursday, March 14, on Max.

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