Stepping Out From Hillary Clinton’s Onscreen Shadow

“The Girls on the Bus” is a fizzy recasting of the campaign-trail memoir “Chasing Hillary” by Amy Chozick, who covered the 2016 election for The New York Times. But it is not a show about Hillary Clinton. Immediately, it takes pains to banish her persona from the screen. The Democratic front-runner of the pilot episode is a governor named Caroline Bennett (Joanna Gleason), and though she is a baby boomer (check) in a pantsuit (check), she also writes romance novels under a pseudonym.

It’s a very un-Hillary detail, and it foretells a very un-Hillary downfall. Shortly after Chozick’s reporter stand-in, Sadie McCarthy (Melissa Benoist), eagerly hops onto Bennett’s bus, she finds her candidate sidelined by a sex scandal (and not her husband’s).

These are silly choices, and savvy ones. Only when Clinton’s baggage has been dumped is “The Girls on the Bus” free to repave the trail into an escapist romp. For the better part of two decades, Clinton has gripped the cultural imagination around the idea of a first female president. Hundreds of millions of Americans, of several generations, both supporters and critics, imagined it would be her. Screenwriters foresaw it, too. “The Girls on the Bus,” now streaming on Max, is one of the first shows about presidential politics that is forced to contend with her absence. But it can’t quite quit her.

As Clinton ran and lost and ran and lost in the real world, television universes selected a succession of fictionalized Hillarys to occupy their replica Oval Offices. Clinton’s politics, her path, her bearing, her wardrobe, her haircut — these character details could be mirrored or mocked or refuted onscreen, but they could not be ignored.

When Cherry Jones played the first female president on “24,” beginning in 2008, she told a reporter, unprompted: “She’s not Hillary. She has nothing to do with Hillary.” But when Lynda Carter played an (alien!) president on “Supergirl” in 2016, she said, “I used Hillary to prepare.”

Caroline Bennett (Joanna Gleason) and Felicity Walker (Hettienne Park) on the campaign trail in “The Girls on the Bus.”Credit…HBO
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