Could the show be headed for a reinvention?
Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 9 through June 15 is the season three finale of the Freeform series The Bold Type, “Breaking Through the Noise.”
For its whole third season, The Bold Type — a show about three twenty-somethings working at a fictional, Cosmopolitan-esque women’s magazine called Scarlet — seemed to be positioning its characters to move to a frightening place: life beyond the magazine.
In a plot clearly inspired by the vigorous primarying of incumbents in New York during the 2018 election cycle, Scarlet social media head Kat (Aisha Dee) ran for city council. She lost her bid in the season’s penultimate episode, but only by a hair. And though she finds a way to bring some of her collaborators from the campaign into the world of Scarlet in the season finale, it seems clear that running for office lit some kind of a public service-oriented fire under Kat.
Similarly, Sutton (Meghann Fahy) has been balancing her job as Scarlet’s fashion assistant and her deepening relationship with Richard with a new venture: She’s now a fledgling designer herself. This season, she burned the candles at both ends as a student in a prestigious design seminar and, in her first runway show, attracted notice from both her instructor and renowned magazine editor Joanna Coles. (In the real world, Coles, who is the former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, is also an executive producer on The Bold Type; in the fictional world of the show, she’s the model for Scarlet’s woke, supportive editor in chief Jacqueline Carlyle, played by Melora Hardin.)
Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens) is still doing her thing as Scarlet’s star reporter, but she’s trying new things, too. In season three, she was the main driver behind the show’s #MeToo storyline: She uncovered a story about a photographer with a history of treating models in an abusive way and worked in tandem with Jacqueline to report it for Scarlet. That kind of investigative reporting isn’t Scarlet’s bread and butter, and for Jane — whose work has largely been in profiles and more personally inflected reporting — it was a big but rewarding learning experience.
But the startling final moments of the season three finale indicated that it isn’t just Jane, Kat, and Sutton who have started to think about what their lives might look like after Scarlet. It seems possible that The Bold Type itself is thinking about their futures, too. And for a show that has sometimes fallen prey to TV’s well-documented struggle to accurately portray the realities of working in media, that shift could signal that The Bold Type is finally ready to confront a matter that so far, it has mostly ignored.
The Bold Type can be in tune with the real world. This season’s #MeToo storyline was a strong example.
To watch The Bold Type is to both helplessly love it and to roll your eyes so hard you risk straining them. Sometimes it feels incredibly aware of the world it exists in, particularly in episodes that reevaluate both the legacy of women’s magazines and the blind spots in the breeds of feminism they’ve typically promoted. And sometimes it seems to have veered off into the ozone.
In “Breaking Through the Noise,” one of the show’s smartest, most well-developed storylines came to a close. Jane and Jacqueline both realized that while they have long considered themselves advocates for women’s empowerment, and had just spent months reporting a story about models who’d been abused by a powerful woman, they were part of the problem. Scarlet’s practice of hiring underage models (as young as 14) and promoting them as ideals of feminine beauty, then turning a blind eye to photographers and others who exploited them, ran contrary to the magazine’s view of itself as empowering. The magazine itself was, as Jacqueline says in the finale, part of the problem.
That realization prompted Jacqueline to revamp the fall issue with only 17 hours to go before it was due at the printer, the type of move that makes for good TV but simultaneously made me feel, as a journalist, like I might be having a panic attack. (In the world of the show, where the constraints of space and time are clearly a bit more elastic, everyone nods and agrees that it’s the right thing to do, and they’re all very chill as they set about staying up all night to get a new issue together.)
Still, it was a good way to cap off this season’s smart choice to focus most of its #MeToo storyline energy on a woman who had perpetrated abuse; it let The Bold Type spotlight the fact that abuse is about power, not sex. (A separate storyline in the season’s third episode tackled sex and power; it drew on Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 New Yorker short story “Cat Person.”)
Savvy writing like this presumably helps the show’s audience (The Bold Type airs on Freeform, a network aimed at millennials, and then streams on Hulu) sort out some of their more complicated feelings about the #MeToo movement and the conversations around it.
But there are also moments on the show during which you might find yourself wondering exactly who is writing it. At no point was that question more prevalent this season than every time Scarlet’s eccentric new head of digital, Patrick Duchand (Peter Vack), uttered the words “The Dot Com,” the magazine’s preferred moniker for its website.
“The Dot Com” (you can only say it in title caps) is a transcendently silly thing to call a website, at least in 2019, some cross between an anachronism and something your goofy uncle would say to you every time he saw you at a family gathering, knowing that you write for a website: Oh, how’s life at the ol’ Dot Com? But on The Bold Type, everyone says it so many times that it’s impossible not to come around to liking it in the end.
By the end of “Breaking Through the Noise,” it seems that Patrick — who was brought in to run digital by the magazine’s board, seemingly as punishment against Jacqueline after she publishes Jane’s article criticizing the health care policy of the magazine’s parent company — may have come to an understanding about how his dearly beloved Dot Com fits into the larger picture at Scarlet. He pitches in with the last-minute fall issue overhaul, somehow finagling the very rapid development of an app that will allow Scarlet readers to see themselves on the cover of the fall issue. Patrick has come into the fold.
Or has he? Can Scarlet exist as something larger than The Dot Com?
Maybe The Bold Type is finally catching onto what it’s actually about: working in media
I watched most of the finale thinking, Oh, okay, so Scarlet is viable after all.
Because I work in media, and many of my friends work in media, we talk about The Bold Type as being set in kind of a fantasy of the media world, the sort of thing everyone’s accustomed to seeing in rom-coms and certain TV shows. The show is at least somewhat aware of the ecosystem in which it airs, with a short storyline in the second season devoted to Jane’s struggles as a freelancer, and a seemingly strong understanding of how social media helps boost a magazine’s brand. (The most realistic thing of all about The Bold Type may be that Jane goes to work all day but still writes her drafts from her couch at night. I get it, Jane.)
But most writers don’t get hailed as the next Nora Ephron at age 25, as Jane did, even if they’re very good, and the show seems to be blind to the more difficult aspects of working in media. In 2019, many young writers, and increasingly more mid-career writers, are full-time freelancers, struggling with issues that go way beyond getting motivated and figuring out a story. (I freelanced for 10 years, and many of my friends freelance currently, and I can say with confidence that the hardest part of being a freelance writer is getting outlets to pay you on time, or at all.)
As Rachel Syme wrote for the New Republic after The Bold Type’s second season, “If The Bold Type is ever going to feel real, it needs to depict the difficult, ugly side of this business, as well as the cocktail parties and the blow-outs.” A show as feminist and socially aware as The Bold Type can’t just sidestep those matters — getting paid; acquiring health insurance; navigating a shrinking media landscape where journalism and criticism are routinely devalued (or, worse, replaced with lightly edited content mills); eating something other than cheap ramen or $3 falafel.
For the most part, only people from privileged backgrounds can even afford to work in the field, so it feels strange for The Bold Type to leave so much of the nitty-gritty of the job off the screen. Kat, we know, is supported by her wealthy parents and got her first job at Scarlet because of her father; Jane and Sutton seem to have clawed their way in on merit. Sutton’s struggles with money and with her feelings about it have figured into several of the show’s plot lines, but the show’s characters all appear perfectly comfortable with going out on the town for Manhattan’s $15 cocktails.
Is that realistic? The answer, more and more, is “not really.”
The Bold Type now has a great opportunity to show its viewers, with empathy and humor, what it’s really like to be an ambitious young woman in media
Which is why the ending of “Breaking Through the Noise” may signal a promising direction for The Bold Type, one as connected to the world it portrays as season three’s #MeToo arc was. Digital publishing has been good, in some regards, for media overall; it’s made it possible for journalists to publish more quickly and widely, and for publications (like this one) to start up that probably couldn’t have managed the overhead required for print.
But digital publishing has also played a role in devaluing journalism and the work of writers, and in increasing workloads while decreasing pay. It’s taught a lot of readers to expect content to be free, even though content isn’t free to produce. For all but a very few lucky people, even a good, steady staff job in journalism is only really possible to maintain in the long term in a city like New York if you also have a safety net (in the form of family or partner), or another job, or some other means of income.
And these days, few people in media harbor illusions that they’ll scratch out a whole career at one publication, or even at one media company, as might have been possible in the past. With vanishingly few exceptions, everyone I know either has been laid off at some point in the past, or assumes they will be laid off — or that their publication will be shut down — at some point in the future. It feels like an inevitability, not a possibility.
Which brings us back to Scarlet. At the end of “Breaking Through the Noise,” after sending the fall issue to the printer, Kat, Jane, and Sutton have just re-cemented their connection to the magazine and their careers there. Sutton has decided she’d rather work at Scarlet than pursue a career as a fashion designer. Jane is newly excited about doing more challenging work; Kat has figured out a way to funnel her passion for advocacy into her job. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you guys and Scarlet to rely on,” Kat says as the trio enters the newsroom.
Then they encounter a traumatized staff, a half-empty office space, and men carrying boxes around. That’s where the episode leaves us. Scarlet, as they’ve known it (and as we have, too), is gone. And their fearless leader Jacqueline is nowhere to be seen.
What happened? No one knows for sure. My best guess is that Jacqueline’s last-minute move to revamp the fall issue resulted in some bold action on the board’s part, but the details of that action aren’t clear. Perhaps the board fired Jacqueline and promoted Patrick. Perhaps it’s decided to kill the print edition of Scarlet to invest in The Dot Com, and to get rid of the existing newsroom, too. Maybe it’s shuttered Scarlet altogether, or integrated it with another of its brands, or sold it to a competitor.
No matter the situation, any of these possible events would be destabilizing for a magazine staff, and it seems all but certain that most of The Bold Type season four will be devoted to the fallout. I hope, for the sake of the young women watching the show and dreaming of a career in media just like Jane’s or Sutton’s or Kat’s, that it will take the opportunity to address some of the things that make it difficult to work in this business, and to set some realistic expectations about the future of media.
It’s still a job worth doing. And I’m pretty sure our heroines will figure it out; The Bold Type is still a TV show, after all. But scratching out a living in the media is not a job for the faint of heart — and the boldness required to do so is worth addressing on a show like this one.