“Adulthood is where dreams go to die,” says Sophia Amaruso at the start of Girlboss. Netflix’s new series is inspired by the self-starting success of Sophia, an entrepreneur who found financial fortune with her own online shop selling vintage clothes. It’s easy to see the appeal: a young go-getter with a finger up at the world, unafraid to chase a dream and find success. At a time when TV and film is crying out for complex female lead characters, Sophia and her Nasty Gal eBay page is just the kind of role model that millennials need. In September 2016, Amaruso was crowned one of the richest self-made women in the world by Forbes. Two months later, Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy.
That’s the start of Girlboss’ problems. The series, which is adapted from Sophia’s own book, is an unashamedly pro-Sophia programme, celebrating her every rude whim, entitled outburst and lazy whine. She’s a character who wants to become rich without having do any work, a little too narcissitic to be a noble icon and, as portrayed here, a little too unlikeable to ever be loveable.
The show knows all these things and leans into them deliberately, with star Britt Robertson enjoying the heck out of her edgy, unpleasant protagonist. She’s shallow and selfish and unapologetically so. “I don’t know why, but I like you,” says Shane (Johnny Simmons), drummer, band manager and Sophia’s boyfriend. “You’ll figure it out,” comes the reply.
The gamble the show makes is that because Amaruso ultimately finds success, all that bad stuff balances out eventually. In real life, though, it didn’t: there’s another chapter that tells a different story. In its rush to embrace Girlboss and her awesome attitude, the result leaves some bizarre character traits sticking out awkwardly: when we first meet her, she’s dumpster diving for food, even though she has a wealthy dad (Breaking Bads’ always-excellent Dean Norris) wanting to help, and then steals something, which the show asks us to laugh about as something totally harmless and justified. The pacing, too, is haphazard, with episodes skipping from one plot strand to another without any real structure – one chapter sees Sophia heading to Coachella, while another diverts into drunken nights out and acid trips, because hey kids, amiright?
Despite the odd frustrating slip, though, you suspect that the hyperactive attention span may be deliberate: the show is created Kay Cannon, of Pitch Perfect, and her crafting of the early web world in noughties San Francisco is impeccable, from the references to MySpace and The OC’s dramatic third season to the infectious soundtrack, pre-recession hipsters and a superb depiction of forums and chatboards (featuring a scene-stealing Melanie Lynskey as a rival vintage fashion fan).
The strong supporting cast help to hold the edges together, from Ellie Reed as Annie, Sophia’s inexplicably loyal best friend to Alphonso McAuley as Dax, bar tender and Annie’s other half, Josh Couch as burgeoning artist Max and, best of all, Andre “RuPaul” Charles as Sophia’s withering neighbour, Lionel. When he’s not smoking pot, he’s dispensing important advice to her, which she blithely ignores – if the show does continue to explore what happens next to Sophia in real life, the dynamic between her and her would-be mentor will be a highlight, not just in terms of humour, but in terms of character development.
Cannon’s quick-witted script certainly doesn’t drop the ball on the former, full of barbed insults and oh-so-hip running jokes. “Love you in case I die!” Sophia and Annie say every time they part, with believable chemistry. Robertson, throughout, is the thing that makes it work: she’s ballsy, clueless, brash and brainy all at once, and buys into her character’s flaws as much as her ferocious drive. Every bad thing that happens to this Girlboss is her own fault, and Robertson isn’t afraid to undermine her own powerhouse performance, even if that does mean her character is resolutely hard to root for; Sophia may not be your new favourite persona, but Robertson absolutely should be.
Her comic timing helps to compensate for the fact that we don’t really care about Sophia’s success. “I guess I’m just pissed off,” she says to her dad during one heated dinner conversation. “About what?” he asks. She sighs. “I don’t know yet.” It’s oddly fitting that this uneven series should feel that, come the upbeat finale, it’s only just figuring out what it wants to be. The result is easy to watch, a 13-episode binge that often hits your funny bone but stays stubbornly, fascinatingly tone-deaf, not necessarily through any fault of its own; there’s potential for an interesting second season of this achingly cool biopic, but while we already know where things are headed, Season 1 never does. “Adulthood is where dreams go to die,” we’re told, but there’s no dramatic irony to be found in this six-and-a-half-hour prologue. Like a pair of old shoes that are half a size too small, it doesn’t always quite fit.
Girlboss is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.