Britt Robertson gives a strong lead performance in Netflix’s frequently meandering online fashion retail comedy.
Like many projects, Girlboss had to go through a Choose Your Own Adventure series of decisions when it came to medium and format.
Based on the best-selling memoir by Sophia Amoruso, it’s the sort of story that once would have likely been a mid-budget movie, destined to attract an up-and-coming starlet and make a reasonably profitable $35 or $40 million at the box office, but they don’t make that kind of movie anymore, so it’s off to television. On TV, a broadcast network version of Girlboss probably would have been pitched as a half-hour workplace comedy set at a burgeoning online vintage fashion empire, but presumably creator Kay Cannon wanted to do something more serialized and with more adult themes. So it’s off to the unfenced prairies of streaming, where they let you say anything you want, but you still have to choose between half-hour and hour, even if the story you’re telling isn’t exactly a drama or a comedy.
The result of these various forks in the road is Netflix’s version of Girlboss, a West Coast blend of Sex and the City and How to Make It in America that’s only beginning to feel like it knows what it wants to be after all 13 half-hour episodes of the first season. An impressive lead performance by Britt Robertson, freed from what seems like chronic misuse, was enough to keep me watching through too many meandering episodes, but some viewers will surely demand more consistency and less erratic displays of imagination.
Robertson plays Sophia, a 23-year-old who bounces through menial jobs in 2006 San Francisco making broad pronouncements like, “I just need to figure out a way of growing up without becoming a boring adult.” She says things like that a lot. Sophia has a hard time holding down jobs because she’s easily distracted, doesn’t do well with societal norms and is unable to suffer fools gladly, which causes characters to frequently tell her things like, “This is the whole problem with you! You don’t know your place!” following scenes in which anybody with eyes already knows that the problem with Sophia is that she doesn’t know her place. “Show don’t tell” is everybody’s favorite writing rule, but Girlboss loves showing and then underlining several times if you don’t get it.
Sophia has an encouraging, flighty best friend (Ellie Reed’s Annie), the ear of a helpful bartender (Alphonso McAuley’s Dax) and a potential romance with Johnny Simmons’ Shane, who’s a band manager and drummer, so she should know better. She also has an understanding father (Dean Norris), who just wishes she’d figure out a way of growing up (and probably doesn’t care about whether or not she’s also a boring adult).
When Sophia finds a leather jacket underpriced at a used clothing store and gussies it up and resells it on Ebay for a huge profit, genius strikes. This is Sophia’s superhero origin story moment. Her superhero power? Some people see outdated fashions or discarded accessories as they are and ask why. Sophia dreams of future trends that never were and asks why not? She’s the Bobby Kennedy of millennial resale retail.
Cannon (Pitch Perfect), frequent director Christian Ditter (How to Be Single) and a big-name producing team led by Charlize Theron at least partially buy into Girlboss as empowering superhero. There are fleeting fantasy moments where we see the world as Sophia sees it, and whimsy like that is what Girlboss actually does best. Later episodes include black-and-white vignettes telling the stories of different articles of clothing and an episode built around fun black-box theater depictions of online communication circa 2006 — forum chatrooms, IM, etc. The show really perks up when the writers and directors bend the format and really steer into inspired ways to tell what is a very conventional rags-to-riches success story. When they just tell the story literally, it’s entirely too many montages of Sophia dancing happily by herself in success and smashing things angrily by herself in disappointment.
The same is true of the show’s approach to its recent-but-still-period setting. When it’s just Annie dropping references to Britney Spears’ troubled mental state, the punchlines are too easy and the dramatic irony too shallow. Every once in a while, though, Girlboss wholly dives into the nostalgic muck and wallows with abandon that I appreciated. I refer mostly to the early episode that uses the third-season finale of The O.C. and The Bad Thing That Happens to Marissa as a structuring conceit and running joke for a full 30 minutes. That installment, the season’s fourth, caught me as my enthusiasm was waning and probably carried me through the whole season. Your amusement and enthusiasm for Marissa Cooper jokes may vary.
I’d probably have persisted anyway just for Robertson, who was justifiably tapped for Hollywood stardom around the time of The CW’s Life Unexpected, but has instead been subjected to middling (The Secret Circle) and awful (Under the Dome) TV projects, movies that fizzled instead of elevating her profile (Tomorrowland) and at least a half-dozen projects suggesting that even in her mid-twenties, the industry thinks she’s still 15. Holding down nearly every Girlboss scene, Robertson is a tiny ball of energy and emotion here, displaying the things that make Sophia gifted, but never losing track of the character’s pervasive flaws. When things go wrong on Girlboss, the cause is almost always Sophia and Robertson’s playing of the character’s temper and self-defeating proclivities helps build drama even when if you quickly realize you don’t care about the politics of early e-commerce.
It’s Sophia’s story and her domination leaves the main supporting roles rather thin. You can see Girlboss realizing that and concentrating later episodes on Annie in particular, eventually paying off for Reed. It’s the stable of recurring players that will keep some viewers interested as Norm Macdonald, Jim Rash and Louise Fletcher all steal scenes. You wouldn’t think a comedy would need comic relief, but that’s what RuPaul provides amply as Sophia’s resourceful neighbor. Melanie Lynskey also makes the most of a couple of later episodes as the leader of the Vintage Fashion Forum, a group that takes issue with Sophia’s business practices.
Lynskey and her group of rivals help give form to the tail end of the Girlboss season and the half-hours also take on better episodic form, but the point the show reaches by its first finale feels like where a movie might have gotten after two hours or even where a very tight hourlong pilot could have reached. So the first season is really like a kinda funny six-and-a-half-hour movie, as TV-denying producers love to say. But who would want to watch a kinda funny six-and-a-half-hour movie when we know there are better ways to tell a story? Santa Clarita Diet had a similar problem, where by the time the first season ended, it felt like a wicked long pilot for a second season that might get really good. This may be becoming a Netflix thing. I’m not sure if it’s the best of things, with binge logic superseding storytelling logic.
When it comes to Girlboss, Robertson and the ensemble offered just enough reasons to keep going for the duration, but I hope the creative team recognized what worked and gets to go a bit crazier in a second season.
Cast: Britt Robertson, Ellie Reed, Alphonso McAuley, Johnny Simmons, Dean Norris, Norm MacDonald, RuPaul Charles, Jim Rash, Melanie Lynskey
Creator: Kay Cannon, based on the book by Sophia Amorusa
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)