‘The Girls on the Bus’: Here’s the True Story That Inspired the Political Dramedy

The Max series is fictional, but draws on journalist Amy Chozick’s real-life experiences

“The Girls on the Bus,” now streaming on Max, follows four female political reporters — Sadie McCarthy (Melissa Benoist), Grace Gordon Greene (Carla Gugino), Kimberlyn Kendrick (Christina Elmore) and Lola Rahaii (Natasha Benham) — as they cover a highly contentious Democratic primary beset by factional, demographic and generational disputes.

The events depicted in the limited series are wholly fictional, but if the premise sounds familiar, that’s because it is. “The Girls on the Bus” is loosely inspired by “Chasing Hillary,” the 2018 memoir by former New York Times reporter Amy Chozick (who is an executive producer on the series) about her experiences covering Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Given the vast differences between the book and the series, let’s look at the real life events that inspired the streaming drama.

The True Story

First, the show’s title “The Girls on the Bus” is a play on “The Boys on the Bus” (1973), the landmark book by Rolling Stone reporter Timothy Crouse that exposed in brutal and unflattering detail the pettiness, bullying and pack mentality of journalists covering the 1972 US presidential election.

“Chasing Hillary” isn’t precisely the same kind of book, though there are similarities.

Chozick began writing about Clinton back in 2007, for The Wall Street Journal. She covered Clinton’s 2008 campaign, as a member of the traveling press for Clinton and Barack Obama, which is, of course, what the characters of “The Girls on the Bus” are part of.

She joined the New York Times in 2011, and in 2013, began covering Hillary Clinton and her family full time. This transitioned into coverage of the 2016 election cycle, culminating in Donald Trump’s shocking electoral college victory.

“Chasing Hillary” covers all of it. Detailing both the candidate’s mistakes and the failures of journalism, we see Chozick’s very strong admiration for Clinton that turned to disillusionment, the people she met and worked with over that decade, and stories behind major political events.

Clinton, depicted as being stuck in a political mindset better suited to the era before the Iraq war and Great Recession, fails to understand the significance of those events on the politics of younger voters. She’s surrounded by people who have open hostility for the media. And worried about accumulating huge debts, her campaign penny-pinches to the point of not covering travel expenses for the reporters covering her.

Chozick says she tried more than 50 times to get an interview with Clinton, symbolic of how the campaign seems to have just shut most journalists out. This, according to Chozick, helped encourage those journalists to obsess over other things. The private email servers issue for instance, or trivialities, like what Clinton was eating. Ultimately the book describes something of a toxic feedback loop between the candidate and the media that brought out the worst in both on the way to her historic loss.

And through the book, Chozick examines hows she found her identity so intertwined with her political writing, that she wound up questioning an entire few decades of her life.

It seems Melissa Benoist’s character Sadie, who writes for a legacy publication known as The New York Sentinel, is meant to be a variation of Chozick in the series.

girls-on-the-bus-melissa-benoist-max-nicole-rivelli
Melissa Benoist in “The Girls on the Bus.” (Nicole Rivelli/Max)

Sadie finds herself so wrapped up in rooting for Felicity Walker, the female candidate of choice for president in the first race Sadie covered, that she allows her personal bias to impact her reporting. She and Walker develop a love/hate relationship toward each other, with Sadie struggling to get access to her at key moments.

We’ll refrain from spoilers here, but as the series progresses, more parallels become apparent with Sadie. But, it seems there are pieces of Chozick in the other characters as well.

For example, Kimberlyn Kendrick struggles to plan her own wedding around being out on the trail. Chozick struggled with the same thing, planning her own wedding around Clinton’s campaign.

And, along the trail, Sadie and her friends struggle to manage their own personal lives, and need to figure out what they want, individually, as they devote themselves to their work.

Getting the details right

Chozick serves as an executive producer on “The Girls on the Bus,” and, given that its based on her real-life experiences as a reporter on the bus, there were a few things she knew she needed to get right.

First and foremost was the bus itself. According to Chozick, keeping the plainness of the vehicle intact was essential.

“The bus was very important because it’s extremely hard to shoot on a bus, as you can imagine, getting production in there,” Chozick explained to TheWrap ahead of the show’s premiere.

“And so, there were all kinds of creative discussions of like, ‘Well, maybe we make it more like sofas against this.’ And I was like, ‘No! The bus looks like the bus. The bus has — it’s called ‘The Girls on the Bus,’ it has to look like this.’ So that was a really important thing.”

More important though was not sacrificing real-life journalistic integrity for appealing storylines. According to Chozick, she “blew Julie [Plec, co-showrunner]’s mind” when she explained that Melissa Benoist’s character couldn’t actually have sex with a source, even if it made for “the soapiest, you know, sexiest, most entertaining TV version.”

“Everything we pitched, she’s like, ‘No, she can’t have sex with that person. No, she cannot sleep with — no, there’s no sex with that person,” Plec told TheWrap with a laugh. “I was like, oh my god!”

Chozick noted that the on-screen trope of female journalists sleeping their way to information was just “a hard no for me.”

But she was also proud of the fact that, in addition to avoiding that pitfall, the series also addresses the “double standard” that happens when Sadie finds herself with a conflict of interest unintentionally, after sleeping with Malcolm (Brandon Scott) well before he’s in a position of influence.

“It ended up sort of this meditation on the double standards facing female journalists,” Chozick explained. “She made a mistake four years ago … and just you know, the idea that these women give up their lives for the job. and who are they supposed to meet? Of course she met a bag man four years ago!”

She continued, “You’re in this environment, this pressure cooker, and those are the only other people you’re meeting. So I was really proud that we kind of avoided the trope, but also like turned it. I had the chance to flip it on its head and really think about that.”

You can watch Chozick’s full comments in the video above.

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