At an important meeting, social media director Kat (Aisha Dee) gives a presentation to a group many years her senior and several levels above her on the org chart. They may have more power than she does, but she knows something they don’t: Which story will get more online traction—a standard gossip item about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle or a piece about a man who self-identifies as a unicorn? Her audience says Prince Harry, but she proves it’s the unicorn. “When it comes to the internet and millennials, it’s not about the story,” she explains. “It’s about the conversation it starts.” The student has become the master, and wisdom can come from the most unexpected places.
When The Bold Type premiered last year, Freeform’s frothy drama was as much a fantasy as any show set at a print publication in 2017 would have to be. The story of three best friends and coworkers navigating the fictional women’s magazine Scarlet even felt like propaganda, or perhaps wishful thinking, for glossies in general and clear inspiration Cosmopolitan in particular. (Former Cosmo editor Joanna Coles is credited as an executive producer, providing the voice-over for each episode’s “previously on” segment.) Under the tutelage of demanding yet nurturing editrix Jacqueline Carlyle (Melora Hardin), rookie staff writer Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens) became a rising star on the merits of trend pieces about butt facials and confessional essays about her own sex life. Heartwarming and topically accurate, sure; a realistic reflection of an industry where freelance recapper gigs outnumber print staff jobs by about 10,000-to-1, not exactly.
Cut to The Bold Type’s currently airing second season. By Episode 2, Jane is unceremoniously fired from a website after a profile is edited into a hit piece without her knowledge, a voicemail apology for said hit piece is Auto-Tuned into a viral meme, and a TV interview goes predictably awry. We’re not in media Kansas anymore.
Between its freshman and sophomore efforts, The Bold Type switched showrunners from creator Sarah Watson to Amanda Lasher, an alumna of MTV’s cult rape-revenge series Sweet/Vicious. But in fairness to Watson, the pivot away from a Pollyannaish view of journalism started almost as soon as The Bold Type had laid out its premise. After a few episodes writing mostly fluff, Jane began to take on more serious assignments like political profiles, finally matching Scarlet’s bark—Kat likes to boast of the magazine’s “stealth feminism”—with its bite. Jane made screw-ups that corresponded with that boost in responsibility, too: When she didn’t take sufficient precautions to protect a subject’s anonymity, the subject sued Scarlet for defamation despite an otherwise flattering portrayal, teaching Jane a valuable lesson about best intentions. And later in the season, the specter of layoffs and budget cuts loomed over Scarlet and its parent company, a surprisingly frank acknowledgment that the magazine world is well past the days of expense accounts and fat profit margins.
Season 2 nonetheless represents a step up for The Bold Type as both a series and a surprisingly insightful portrayal of a high-profile workplace. This show isn’t just a cornerstone of my rapidly solidifying summer TV lineup; it’s a piece of media criticism that also happens to be a coming-of-age story and an ode to friendship. And I’d rather watch the central trio hash out journalistic ethics in Scarlet’s fashion closet than read a column about them any day of the week.
The Bold Type is still a brightly colored confection with a soundtrack that sounds like the inside of a Forever 21, and as such it’s hardly a documentary. In the most recent episode, Jane profiles a love interest and then promptly agrees to go on a date with him, as hoary a cliché as any fictional journalist has embodied whilst fulfilling her duties as a rom-com heroine. But this is media we’re talking about, an industry where the line between absurd exaggeration and total plausibility has more to do with chance than immovable principles. When Jane is lured away from Scarlet to Incite, an “online news magazine” that appears to be some combination of Slate and Gawker, she’s immediately entrusted with her own vertical. This could be an eye-popping promotion for a writer on her second-ever staff position—or an accurate reflection of how much online outlets depend on young, cheap, green talent to keep the lights on. The night before her vertical launches, Jane hasn’t handed in so much as a draft of her flagship feature. This could be an anxiety-inducing feat of extreme procrastination—or a fair representation of how many publications don’t build in time for editing or fact-checking their pieces. Between submission and publication, Jane’s editor Victoria (Rebecca Croll) turns a nuanced profile of a menstrual cup CEO whose philanthropic efforts have backfired into a savage exposé. This could be an extraordinary overreach on the part of a supposed mentor—or a totally believable example of a boss throwing her employee under the bus.
This last mishap even comes with a moral-of-the-story, courtesy of her former boss Jacqueline. “If anyone is to blame” for the ensuing firestorm, she says, “it’s Victoria. An editor is supposed to support their staff, not exploit them.” The Incite plot is an effective vehicle for advancing Jane’s character and complicating the relationship between her and Jacqueline, who refuses to hire Jane back into her comfort zone after her very public mistake. But it’s also a worthwhile look at the behind-the-scenes collaboration between writers and editors and how it can go wrong. Many a Twitter pile-on has shown that the vast majority of non-writers and editors don’t realize editors are responsible for commissioning, packaging, and quality-assuring pieces, and consequently blame the byline when one of those processes doesn’t pan out as it should. There’s something sweet about knowing teens tuning in for the story might also get an accidental crash course in media literacy.
Season 2 also moves The Bold Type’s focus up the food chain, introducing a conflict between Jacqueline and a new board member. Cleo Williams (Siobhan Murphy) is a fitness entrepreneur and the only woman—not to mention relatively young person—in a group otherwise composed exclusively of old white dudes. In theory, Cleo should be Jacqueline’s natural ally, but in reality, the two immediately clash heads: Cleo kills a feature on body positivity and Jacqueline retaliates by simply folding its thesis into her editor’s letter. There’s a nuanced point The Bold Type is making about how shared identity doesn’t always equal solidarity, nor should it. Just because Cleo and Jacqueline are both successful women in a male-dominated field doesn’t mean they’ll always have each other’s backs, and when Cleo starts pushing an agenda antithetical to Jacqueline’s ethos, it’s probably for the best that Jacqueline doesn’t defer out of sisterhood. There’s also a handy illustration of how even editors-in-chief have bosses to report to, a development that goes hand-in-hand with turning Jacqueline into a more multidimensional character with conflicts of her own.
The Bold Type is not Dietland; its writers may find inspiration in the drawbacks of magazines, but the show is never going to turn into an out-and-out evisceration of them. At the end of the day, The Bold Type believes in Scarlet’s ability to topple the patriarchy and sell advertising, too, a perspective that sometimes leads the show to sunnier conclusions than this particular cynic is always comfortable with. Jacqueline’s response to #MeToo, for example, is to immediately commission a package on so-called good men, a concept that struck me as both beside the point and profoundly risky. (How does Scarlet look if one of them is later accused of misconduct, as many “good men” are?) Scarlet’s body positivity issue sends all the right messages, but it’s still a theme issue that cordons off plus-sized bodies rather than integrating them into the magazine’s overall vision. And The Bold Type seems to side with Jane’s awfully forgiving take on the women’s hygiene purveyor who botched a charity program yet continued to take credit for it from consumers and investors. Rewriting Jane’s copy to be significantly harsher was wrong, but I also don’t disagree with the Incite article’s ultimate conclusion.
Still, I don’t need The Bold Type to perfectly echo my views on my own profession to appreciate its portrayal of it. Given that the current standard for small-screen print journalism is earning $4.50 a word at an early-aughts Vogue, it’s high time that archetype got an update for the late 20-teens. Besides, The Bold Type is just getting started: Freeform has already renewed the show for Season 3, and now that Jane is freelance, there’s the tantalizing possibility of exploring more and different kinds of writing work, even if she inevitably winds up back at Scarlet. (Jane’s already pitched a piece to Next Century, a wonky, ideas-driven book that bears a strong resemblance to The Atlantic.) And if The Bold Type can do all this while telling stories about dates and group bonding, so much the better. A spoonful of sugar helps the educational elements go down.