"Good Girls Revolt," a late '60s-set newsroom drama on Amazon Prime, shows that a woman's place in creating the first draft of history was as a "researcher" — doing most of the grunt work (and serving the coffee, to boot) while the male reporters got all the credit.
But early in Season 1, which is now available, an edifying question is asked that spurs a group of young women to buck tradition and demand equal standing in journalism.
"Is that the role that you want — being of service to men?"
The query is posed by a young Eleanor Holmes Norton, the real-life and still-living luminary of the American Civil Liberties Union (played by Joy Bryant) at an informal gathering of women.
The period drama, created by Dana Calvo ("Narcos"), is inspired by Lynn Povich's 2012 book, "The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace." For the show, Newsweek is changed to the fictional News of the Week.
The series brings Calvo back to her roots. Before becoming a screenwriter, the New Jersey native got her start as a journalist, including a stint as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
We spoke to Calvo about the new series, the inevitable "Mad Men" comparison, and why men can appreciate the show too.
When did you first come upon Povich's book? Did you immediately feel a yearning to adapt it into something bigger?
I spent 11 years all over the country, and I was very passionate about being a newspaper writer. I never heard of this lawsuit. And here I am going around Hollywood in my second career trying to get a show off the ground about journalism. And I was always met with the same response from Hollywood executives, which is: "We love journalists and we love the vibe of the newsroom, but journalism shows don't work because their reporting is reactive, they're not heroic." And I would always say, "Well, no, good reporters don't just wait for the phone to ring." And so it was never an easy sell.
But then an executive I know at Sony, who knew I was a former reporter, knows that I always liked to write strong women leads. I was running the room at "Narcos" for Netflix two summers ago, and I got an email from him. He said, "You know, we have the rights to this book and I just feel like this is something that you might really like." And I read the press coverage on it and I was so excited about it but also pretty embarrassed that I never heard of it.
So that was my shame. And I emailed my agents right away in all-caps, "I WANT THIS." And two days later I was meeting with executive producer Lynda Obst.
How was it to return to your newsroom roots?
I'm a reporter, so I do like research. I did research on the part I just ordered to fix my dryer. I'm just a nerd about that stuff. And I'm always convinced that someone is going to try to rip me off. You know that reporter instinct, like, I'm going to get the story behind this. So, yeah, I did research, but I have to say biographies are my favorite thing to read. I've read so many biographies of great journalists and great nonfiction events as told by great journalists. And then Lynn Povich's book — the show is inspired by Lynn's book not based on it. The characters are fictitious and the events are fictitious.
We could be nerd reporters and be absolutely just strict about getting things right. And what I also wanted to get right — and I'm sure you can relate to this — was that you can have the best story of your career and without a doubt you're walking out the door and some grumpy editor will say, "You've got to come in tomorrow and do it all over again." So your victory lasts about a moment.
What were the discussions like in the writers room, particularly as you look at current events — the Roger Ailes allegations, the language Donald Trump has used about women, some of the gender gaps that we see in places like Silicon Valley.
Well, interestingly and horrifyingly, we had a discussion about sexual assault in the writers room that divided entirely along gender lines. And divided entirely along gender lines in the executive suites of the network and studio. And now we have this great discussion thanks to these ridiculous Hollywood escapades, where women are, like, "Oh, yeah, that happens all the time." And then men are, like, "Wait, what are you talking about?" What I chalk it up to is: You move through the world differently as a woman. The majority of our stories have been told from a male point of view, and when you shift that point of view to the female gaze, things look a lot different. That's what we were trying to do all along. And it was crystallized, actually, when we had this discussion in the writers room about sexual assault. And just to see it now a couple of months later play out with real people in real time ... one thing that I loved was to hear all these amazing men come forward and say that's not locker room talk.
But to answer your question about what has changed, well, the biggest thing that changed is that we have language in laws that don't allow for that anymore. Which is why Donald Trump — if he wasn't so dangerous he'd be comical. Because it's like he took a space ship [here] from the 1950s.
Most write-ups of "Good Girls Revolt" compare it to "Mad Men" because it's a period drama and also because "Mad Men," too, explored gender dynamics to some degree. But for your show, it really is the focus.
Right. I loved "Mad Men" and I think Matthew Weiner is a visionary and he's a genius and he did for this period drama what no one had really done before. "Mad Men" was from the point of view of a man, and if you shift that gaze [to a woman's perspective] and move through a similar period a little later, it's just a whole different story.
Was there a concern with Amazon executives that this series wouldn't speak as strongly to men? Or does that just highlight the limits we place on stories about women?
You know, it's funny, we rarely ask men about their work-life balance. And we rarely ask male executives if the show about two cops in Detroit is going to appeal to women. I think men are going to love it. I think they're going to relate to how tough it was to be a dude back then too. There was an incredibly tight space that those guys had to fit into. They were also expected to go fight a war in Southeast Asia, come back emotionally, physically damaged, with no reparations, with no place to unburden themselves of that pain. I can't think of a more unfair thing to ask of young men.
Did working on the show get you thinking about sexism you faced in your own career?
Yeah, and as weird as it sounds, in doing the show and articulating my vision in calls to executives and explaining it, I feel like here I am 46 and I finally found my voice. I didn't think anyone was asking Matthew Weiner to defend his vision as much as sometimes the women in charge were asked to explain or defend theirs.
How do you think you would have responded if you were one of the ladies in this News of the Week newsroom? Who would you have been?
I think I'm more of a cross between