clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Netflix’s Girlboss is way more fun once it stops trying to prove its heroine is “such an asshole”

This “real loose” take on Nasty Gal’s origin story shines when it embraces its weirder, more sentimental side.

The Girlboss herself (Britt Robertson)

Halfway through the first episode of Girlboss, Sophia Marlowe (Britt Robertson) storms out of her boring retail job after tearing apart her meek boss for the thousandth time and finally getting fired for it. She calls her best friend to complain, then briefly stops in her tracks to wonder, “Why am I such an asshole?”

It’s a solid question — and one the show would’ve been better off answering sooner rather than later so it could get to her actual story.

As created and written by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), the Netflix adaptation of Sophia Amoruso’s memoir of the same name is, in its own words, a “real loose” retelling of how Amoruso started Nasty Gal, the eBay-based vintage store turned controversial fashion empire. Girlboss follows the company’s beginnings in San Francisco in 2006, with 23-year-old Sophia trying to avoid the need of a real adult job by flipping clothes online from the comfort of her own bed. But her attempt to do as little work as possible morphs into a real business — and one she’s motivated enough to actually work her ass off for, besides.

The problem is that Girlboss’s 13-episode first season starts off like a more drawn-out, televised version of Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck that devotes its early episodes to doing nothing more than proving that Sophia is a surly jerk. But once Sophia finally starts to let go of her self-defeating instincts and make things happen for herself and for Nasty Gal, Girlboss becomes a lot more interesting, and a lot more fun.

The worst thing about Girlboss is its frustrating start

Sophia starts off the series as an unrepentant asshole (her words!), and watching her sneer at anyone who so much as looks at her weird gets grating, fast. The show wastes way too much energy on showcasing what a take-no-shit badass she is, for no apparent reason beyond proving how much she doesn’t care about your opinions, man. And it’s too bad, because the show gets exponentially better once it starts telling different — and often surprisingly emotional — stories.

In Girlboss’s exhausting first three episodes, RuPaul does his best to break up Sophia’s relentless contempt as her perpetually amused neighbor Lionel, and Ellie Reed manages to squeeze in a few fun moments as her best friend, Annie. (Johnny Simmons, as Sophia’s drummer love interest Shane, generally just does fine throughout.) But as with almost every other Netflix show I’ve watched, I spent the early going of Girlboss wondering why the show needed so much time for setup — and such basic setup, at that. (I have zero doubt that Girlboss would be better if its first season had been tightened to 10 episodes long instead of 13.)

It’s basically a movie’s worth of Sophia being awful, receiving lectures and/or withering glances from Real Adults, and snarking that people shouldn’t underestimate her. Robertson has fun in the role, but by the time Sophia was contesting what felt like the thousandth “there's no way someone like you can make something happen” accusation, I was clutching the sides of my computer screen as if shaking it like a Magic 8 ball might produce a different result.

Adding a bizarre layer is the fact that Sophia blows off her dad’s help in the pilot and spends the next few episodes desperately trying to make money — so desperately, in fact, that she’s not just facing eviction, but actively suffering through a hernia because she doesn’t have health insurance. Fighting for your independence is one thing, but man, risking serious physical damage for defiance’s sake seriously doesn’t seem worth it.

The show’s saving grace is that even though Sophia’s personal — and honestly, pretty flatly written struggles — continue throughout the series, Girlboss takes a smarter turn once it finally decides to let her care about something other than herself.

Girlboss improves once Sophia becomes an actual boss, with all the glory, messiness, and surprising surrealism her new role inspires

The turning point for Girlboss is its fourth episode, “LadyShopper99.” Sophia is frantically trying to get a vintage wedding dress to a customer in time for the customer to walk down the aisle in it, and the entire episodes counts down to the moment when it sure seems like Sophia will fuck everything up. Instead, Sophia digs in her heels in, comes up with a solution, and proves to both viewers and herself that she’s capable of giving a shit.

Sophia developing the drive to start and grow her own business almost immediately gives Girlboss more confidence, more depth, and more room to indulge some of its weirder instincts. There’s actually a hint of those instincts in the show’s second episode (“The Hern”), when Sophia combs the internet for estate sales and imagines what the recently deceased’s lives were like; we see her fantasies play out outside her window like she’s projecting them onto a screen. But at that point, Girlboss is still mired in its “Sophia is a shitty person” phase, and it doesn’t dip back into that type of surrealism for a while. When it does, it pays off.

When Sophia and her friends take a road trip to LA in episode eight, for example, “The Trip” becomes an entertaining double entendre, as Annie and her boyfriend Dax (Alphonso McAuley) accidentally take acid and have a mind-bending, weirdly relationship-strengthening experience in their hotel room. And one of the season’s best episodes is its 10th, “Vintage Fashion Forum,” which represents Sophia’s online unpopularity by assembling a group of unhappy vintage resellers (whose business she’s upending) for a physical roundtable.

The actors playing the resellers recite their characters’ web forum posts in monotones and/or screaming caps lock, and the effect is somehow both very weird and eerily accurate in illustrating how nuance and decency can get lost online. (It helps that the vintage fashion forum moderator is played by the always fantastic Melanie Lynskey, who’s somehow at both her mousiest and most threatening in Girlboss.)

“Vintage Fashion Forum” also has the distinction of bringing the most meaningful storyline in Girlboss to a believably devastating head.

The beating heart of Girlboss is Sophia’s best friendship

Sophia and Annie (Ellie Reed) are skeptical

In Reed’s hands, it’s easy to understand why Sophia instantly warmed to her best friend Annie, after — as a flashback episode reveals — they both spent a few hours in a baseball stadium jail. (Their experience is exactly as strange and depressing as it sounds.) Annie is bubbly and blunt, endlessly enthusiastic, and a little wicked; she also believes in Sophia like no one else.

Annie and Sophia sometimes skid into rough patches, as close friends tend to do. But while one episode hinges on a pretty superficial fight on Sophia not putting Annie in her Myspace Top 8 (lol 2006), their eventual breakup in “Vintage Fashion Forum” is a surprisingly wrenching moment that brings out the best in Girlboss.

This fight starts when Sophia, determined to prove herself by herself, refuses to give Annie a real job at Nasty Gal even though Annie’s been helping her out since day one. Annie, furious and impulsive, storms into the vintage fashion forum and gives Sophia’s online enemies enough ammunition to get Nasty Gal kicked off eBay. Annie and Sophia’s resulting fight over AOL instant messenger (lol 2007) is staged with the two of them sitting across from each other in a white room, Richardson and Reed reading their messages in flat voices that hide the hurt behind them — which is about as good a representation of how quickly online fights can unravel when you can’t hear how the other person is saying the words.

We see Sophia resist and tackle a whole mess of emotional baggage throughout Girlboss — attached to everything from her dad’s tentative offer of support, to her absent mother, to her relationship with Shane — but none is half as convincing as this fight with Annie.

While Annie at first seems like an enabling afterthought, she eventually becomes one of Girlboss’s most crucial components. Annie and Sophia love the hell out of each other’s every instinct, whether it’s great or terrible. They take each other seriously when no one else will. They even say goodbye to each other with a twisted kind of reaffirmation: “Love you in case I die!” That sentiment has the exact combination of charm and cynicism Girlboss was clearly going for in the first place — which is, ultimately, the exact combination that makes the show work at all.

The first season of Girlboss is streaming on Netflix.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.