How The Bold Type Mastered the Art of the "Topical" TV Show

TV Features The Bold Type
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How <i>The Bold Type</i> Mastered the Art of the "Topical" TV Show

Early on in the season premiere of The Bold Type, up-and-coming journalist Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens) decides to do some opposition research on Patrick Duchand (Peter Vack), the wunderkind brought in to head up Scarlet’s digital arm. Skeptical about a man leading “the dot com” of a top-tier women’s glossy, she turns to Oliver Grayson (Stephen Conrad Moore), the magazine’s fashion czar, for an honest read on the newbie’s style. He describes it as sprezzatura, “perfect imperfection” or “studied carelessness”: “He wants you to think he didn’t put any effort in,” Oliver adds, “when in fact everything is planned.”

The same might be said of “topical” or “timely” TV, which has become increasingly ubiquitous amidst the intense politicization of, well, everything: Traditional ripped-from-the-headlines procedurals now jostle with late-night shows, family sitcoms, docuseries, The Good Fight, and countless others to handle hot-button issues, though doing so successfully requires a light touch—an air of sprezzatura, if you will. Merely mentioning workplace sexual assault or white privilege is insufficient, and risks accusations of pandering; on the other hand, TV episodes that function as op-eds on the topic du jour can read as ham-fisted, or dull.

What’s an enterprising series to do?

For The Bold Type—a woke Sex and the City, a gentler Devil Wears Prada, a kissing cousin to Younger, a frothily entertaining soap for the Millennial set—mastering the “topical” and the “timely” is more than a narrative technique. It’s central to the series’ identity: With its Season One finale, “Carry the Weight,” in which Scarlet editor Jacqueline Carlyle (Melora Hardin) reveals that she’s a survivor of sexual assault, The Bold Type presaged the viral expansion of the #MeToo movement and secured its reputation as a series more than ready to meet the moment.

As Hardin explains, though, finding ways to bring challenging subject matter into the series—and still feel organic to the characters—is work.

“There was a lot of care taken by the writers and all of us, trying to really represent what that would be like in a true way, in a way that was honest,” Hardin says, sitting across from me in Scarlet’s fashion closest, a bright space lined with color-coordinated dresses, to-die-for shoes, and tabletop arrays of jewelry. Along with addressing Jacqueline’s pain, Hardin adds, the goal was to underscore her “ability to not align with the trauma of that, but [instead] use it as a springboard to help her transform, and to continue on, and to still succeed and still thrive in a business… where she had been raped.”

This detailed attention to integrating topical material into the characters’ backgrounds, personalities, and narrative trajectories can also buoy less well-received attempts to enter the political fray—as in Season Two’s “Betsy,” in which Jane and her roommate/Scarlet colleague, Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy), battle over the gun the latter keeps in their apartment. As Fahy herself admits, the episode’s conclusion—Sutton gives up the gun despite making a compelling argument throughout for responsible gun ownership—drew criticism from many viewers, who felt it was too pat. But seen from another angle, Sutton’s decision makes more sense.

“We try to tell every story through the lens of the friendship, so it was an episode about guns, but it was actually an episode about how to have a conversation with someone who you really, really love about something you disagree on,” says Fahy, who learned how to hold, load, and disassemble a shotgun before filming “Betsy.” “When Sutton gives up the gun, it’s because she recognizes that Jane is never going to be comfortable with it. And so, because of how much she loves Jane, she ends up deciding, “Listen, my friendship with you and your level of comfort in the apartment that we share is so much more important to me than this.”

For Aisha Dee, who plays Scarlet’s social media director, Kat Edison—a young, queer, biracial woman unafraid of standing up to the suits in the magazine’s boardroom—it’s negative responses from fans, as much as the positive ones, that suggest the series is on the right track: When it comes to “topical” TV, if you’re not pissing off someone, you’re not taking big enough swings.

“I love when people call us out when we get it wrong,” Dee says, citing fans who wrote “this has been done before” after Kat kissed a woman who was not her girlfriend in Season Two’s “The Domino Effect.” “Even if the conversation we’re having on the show is not perfect, and we’re not representing the view of political perfection, we’re opening up a conversation and saying, ‘Do you guys want to talk about this, too?’”

It appears that the answer is yes: On the eve of the Season Two finale, Freeform announced that The Bold Type’s ratings across live, digital and VOD platforms had increased 14% year-to-year among adults 18-49, growth that’s been echoed by the series’ strong social media presence. And The Bold Type shows no signs of backing away from topical material in Season Three: The three episodes made available to press introduce an ageism arc that pits Jacqueline against Patrick Duchand, continue Jane’s response to learning that she has the BRCA gene for higher breast cancer susceptibility, and uses the issue of gentrification to push one character into actual politics, while Stevens notes that in a future episode, Kat becomes a victim of racial profiling, with Jane and Sutton there to witness it.

As Dee points out, the characters’ engagement with these topics—in which they’re allowed to make, and recover from, their mistakes—reflects many young women’s daily lives. My sister, a 27-year-old fashion copywriter in New York City, tells me that she and her friends constantly compare their personal and professional dramas to The Bold Type, and Dee remembers hearing from one fan via Twitter that she and her roommate paused Season Two’s “Stride of Pride”—featuring an argument between Kat and Jane about the nature of white privilege—to discuss their own privilege. Whether it’s researching the series’ subject matter online, talking amongst themselves on set, or polling their friends via text message about how they’d handle the characters’ sticky situations, for the cast of The Bold Type, being topical is being relatable: From gender, sexuality, and racial identity to navigating workplace romances and demanding bosses, the series recognizes that issues labeled “political” are profoundly personal when they happen to you.

“The thing that I love about it is that it’s messy, like life,” Dee says of the series—perfect in its imperfection. “You can’t come from this place of knowing everything.”

Season Three of The Bold Type premieres Tuesday, April 9 at 8 p.m. on Freeform.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.