Netflix's 'Girlboss' just can't capitalize on vintage
By Bethonie Butler
Apr 20, 2017 | 12:27 PM
While considering the artistic merits of Netflix's "Girlboss," I was reminded of something the great philosopher Fergie, of Black Eyed Peas fame, once said: You so two-thousand-and-late.
"Girlboss," which begins streaming Friday, is based on the 2014 book by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso. Part memoir, part self-help book, the bestseller (styled "#Girlboss") recalled her rags-to-riches journey in online retailing. In 2006, Amoruso started selling vintage clothes on eBay. She was 22, the web was even younger, and Amoruso used MySpace to cultivate a like-minded following that appreciated her eye for unique pieces that she updated and styled.
By 2012, Nasty Gal had become a full-fledged online retailer with nearly $100 million in sales. Amoruso is no longer chief executive of the company, which hasn't fared as well recently; it filed for bankruptcy last year. But her book landed amid her generation's increasing interest in defining its feminism and the Lean In philosophy popularized by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. Lena Dunham dubbed it a movement. On screen, it feels more like a moment - a time capsule for an era that hasn't aged as well as Nasty Gal's vintage threads.
Britt Robertson ("Tomorrowland") plays a fictionalized version of Amoruso, who is an executive producer of the series. "Girlboss" begins with Sophia pushing her rusty car up a steep San Francisco hill after it stalls on the cable car tracks. She spends much of the episode traipsing about the city like a millennial Peter Pan - dumpster diving, stealing a carpet in broad daylight and moaning about having to be a grown-up. "Adulthood is where dreams go to die," she says while sharing a park bench with an older woman, who responds by slapping her.
After a night out with her BFF Annie (Ellie Reed), Sophia gets fired from her retail job. Before going home to an eviction notice, she heads to a local vintage shop, where she scores an East West calfskin jacket for a mere $9, later selling it on eBay for more than $600. "Know what your s--- is worth. You just got played," she tells the shop's surly owner (Jim Rash). "Bam, son!"
The 13-episode dramedy, created by "Pitch Perfect" screenwriter Kay Cannon, is a painful reminder of just how awful our lexicon was in the mid-aughts. Sophia and Annie share the type of obnoxious vocabulary that makes gratuitous use of abbreviations, inane references to male anatomy and lyrics from rap songs they probably have never listened to in full. It may be true to the time period, but it feels too soon to be waxing nostalgic about how we used to say "totes." (Actually, it will always be too soon.)
The show is full of throwbacks - a billboard for "The Devil Wears Prada," a Blockbuster card, a pivotal scene from "The O.C." and references to MapQuest, Daily Candy and Britney Spears's public breakdown. Some do succeed at poking fun of how different things were back then. The only person explicitly calling out the patriarchy in "Girlboss" is a homeless white woman, who also has strong opinions about gentrification.
As Sophia's eBay business grows to the point that she starts stashing wads of cash in her boots, the show has some fun with the Internet days of yore.
Nasty Gal's approach to vintage fashion sometimes involves scissors, horrifying more traditional purveyors. One seller, played by Melanie Lynskey ("Togetherness"), confronts Sophia after discovering she bought and customized one of her pieces. Lynskey returns in a later episode where an online forum for vintage eBay sellers manifests as an amusing roundtable full of people who like cats and use shorthand familiar to anyone who has spent time in an online comments section. ("Longtime lurker here ...")
Despite some genuinely charming moments, "Girlboss" has a flimsy narrative and gives some of Sophia's personal relationships only a passing glance. She has a strained relationship with her parents, leading to trust issues and her overwhelming fear of failure. She feels her father (Dean Norris), who raised her alone after her mother left, is consistently critical even after Nasty Gal proves to be a success. But given how we're introduced to Sophia - in all her dumpster diving, shoplifting glory - it doesn't seem completely unreasonable that her father would be skeptical about her ability to support herself. At times, it's hard to tell whether it's Sophia or her father that deserves to catch a break.
Sophia's detached relationship with her boyfriend Shane (Johnny Simmons) helps drive home some of her anxieties. But it's hard for the viewer to become invested in their relationship, since she rarely seems to be.
The problem isn't that Sophia is, as one character calls her, "a garbage person." It's that "Girlboss" rarely delves deep enough to make us unequivocally root for her, warts and all. As such, "Girlboss" isn't a replacement for HBO's "Girls," which aired its final episode on Sunday.
Like Nasty Gal, "Girlboss" is probably not aiming to fit into a particular category, which lends some randomness to the series. Norm Macdonald (yes, you read that right) has a few cringeworthy lines in a minor role. RuPaul, who plays Sophia's weed-smoking, TSA-agent neighbor, fares a bit better comedically. But the real MVP might be the bench lady, who resurfaces in the final episode to gift a very successful Sophia with one last slap.
"Girlboss" (13 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.