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4 female reporters tackle corruption and conflicts of interest in 'Girls on the Bus'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A quartet of female reporters tackle corruption, conflicts of interest and questions about sex in the new series "The Girls On The Bus." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the program, which debuts today on the Max streaming service, often struggles to comment on contemporary politics and media in a fictional world.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Scrappy political reporter Sadie McCarthy, played by Melissa Benoist, always seems to be juggling three phones at once, snarking off important people with her coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GIRLS ON THE BUS")

MELISSA BENOIST: (As Sadie McCarthy) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Josh) McCarthy, you will never get another interview with this speech.

BENOIST: (As Sadie McCarthy) Josh, Josh, Josh, if you would let me talk...

DEGGANS: She can also pontificate a little about journalism as a caller.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GIRLS ON THE BUS")

BENOIST: (As Sadie McCarthy) For as long as I can remember, all I wanted was to brave the storms of life and write words that mattered. And just like the boys on the bus who came before me, I was determined to seek more than just the facts. I wanted the truth.

DEGGANS: But Sadie's also got a problem common to fictional political journalists. She's open about emotionally investing in one candidate over the others. She even broke down in tears on live TV when that candidate lost an election - a fact her boss, played by a grizzled Griffin Dunne, reminds her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GIRLS ON THE BUS")

GRIFFIN DUNNE: (As Bruce Turner) Look. You wanted her to win, and it showed in your work. You're a great writer, but you lead with your heart. And we need you to lead with your head.

DEGGANS: Moments like this are what often make folks like me, who've been at this journalism thing a while, feel a little annoyed because there's a powerful conversation to be had about the struggles that journalists face staying fair during a hyper-partisan time, covering starkly contrasting candidates. But "The Girls On The Bus" is trying so hard to be so many different things - a lightly comic drama about women journalists on the presidential campaign trail, balancing the personal and professional in a changing media and political world - that it doesn't dig deeply enough on any one thing to be truly satisfying.

It's a fictionalized story inspired by parts of the book "Chasing Hillary" by former New York Times reporter Amy Chozick, who co-created the show and serves as an executive producer. There's constant references to the classic book about men covering the 1972 presidential campaign, "The Boys On The Bus." And the show excels when it shows its female protagonists facing down double standards in work and life. The four starring characters also include an often-clueless online influencer played by Natasha Behnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GIRLS ON THE BUS")

NATASHA BEHNAM: (As Lola Rahaii) Yo. I'm at this chicken wing buffet, aka the Coachella of the caucuses. This is the first big stop for all the candidates who are trying to win our votes.

DEGGANS: There's a cynical, effective, veteran reporter so focused on work she's ignoring her daughter played by Carla Gugino and a Black woman who works for the show's fictionalized version of Fox News, played by Christina Elmore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GIRLS ON THE BUS")

CHRISTINA ELMORE: (As Kimberlyn Kendrick) Excuse me. I'm Kimberlyn Kendrick with Liberty Direct News. I was hoping I could ask you a couple of questions.

BECKY ANN BAKER: (As Norah McCarthy) I have a question for you. How do you sleep at night?

ELMORE: (As Kimberlyn Kendrick) Like a baby in a satin bonnet, as secure as a Reagan economy.

DEGGANS: But there's also another worrying trope. Sadie sleeps with a man from her past who winds up working as a press aide for a candidate she's covering. As she struggles with the ethics of it all, even Sadie realizes this is something we've seen before in film and TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GIRLS ON THE BUS")

BENOIST: (As Sadie McCarthy) And I hate when Hollywood portrays female journalists using sex to get the facts while male journalists always use their brilliant mind 'cause the truth is it's the opposite. We have to report backwards and in heels.

DEGGANS: In the end, "The Girls On The Bus" is better at asking questions than answering them, making you wonder why they didn't just reenact the book's real-life stories about Hillary Clinton's failed campaign. But it often provides an entertaining look at politics and media just so long as you don't look too closely at the journalism stuff. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "EXPERIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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