Here’s how we’re introduced to Eileen Fitzgerald, the veteran investigative journalist played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the new ABC drama “Alaska Daily.” She’s working on a big exposé for a New York paper when someone lower down the food chain approaches her with concerns about her source. Eileen’s response? “I’ve been doing this since you were finger painting with baby food and now I’m 23 minutes away from publishing a story I spent five months investigating. So please take your all-hands-on-deck approach and get the hell away from my desk.”
Cut to: The story blows up in her face, along with her job.
Which is why, when an old colleague comes visiting from Alaska and offers her a spot at his modest paper — The Daily Alaskan once had a staff of 100, now it’s down to 25 (oh, I know this story well) — she’s begrudgingly persuaded to start anew in Anchorage. “You might be hurt and you might be pissed off, Eileen, but you’re not done,” says her new boss, “and I think you know it.” He’s played by Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry and I, too, would follow him to the ends of Earth if he offered me a job.
“I’ve spent my whole career battling a bunch of good ol’ boy misogynists only to get canceled for being one myself,” Eileen says, incredulous that she, a white woman, would experience any sort of consequence for being just as insufferable as the jerks around her. In the real world, someone like Eileen — who’s hoisted herself on her own petard — would more likely leave her old job in a huff and start up a newsletter and write disingenuously about her nonexistent cancellation.
But TV is allowed to take creative license. And watching Eileen tuck her tail between her legs to work at a small paper in Alaska is far more interesting, anyway. It’s wish-fulfillment fantasy — reporters too convinced of their superiority don’t actually do good work and would sooner swallow their laptop whole than work at a regional newspaper no one in New York has ever heard of — but Swank and Perry are the kind of actors who convince you to come along for the ride.
The shows that work on broadcast television are a genre all their own — self-contained weekly installments spanning longer seasons — and should be judged on their own terms. I happen to like old school episodic series, but the lineup in recent years has become a wasteland of cop shows. If you’re in the mood for anything that doesn’t center on first responders, the options have been limited. Which is why “Alaska Daily,” from creator Tom McCarthy (the writer-director of the 2015 Oscar-winning newspaper film “Spotlight”), is such a welcome addition.
Sure, Eileen arrives with a chip on her shoulder. But she’s willing to pass along some of the wisdom she’s accumulated along the way to her colleagues, among them her new reporting partner Roz Friendly (Grace Dove), who matches Eileen’s jaded-but-committed energy, and the eager but less seasoned reporter Jieun Park (Ami Park). I also liked the brief moment when Eileen sneaks out one morning after a one-night stand, takes her nose out of her navel for once, pauses to look around at her surroundings and is stunned to realize, oh right, the landscape here is gorgeous. (British Columbia stands in for Anchorage here.)
The world of the show feels like a fully realized place where people are connected to the community they cover. And it threads the needle between episodic storytelling and servicing a longer, serialized arc that will presumably span the season.
The latter is what Eileen is working on: Looking into cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women — and why local police haven’t been investigating. It’s a good story to dig into and McCarthy was smart to set up a narrative that ensures an Indigenous journalist (Roz) is on equal footing with Eileen. Suffice it to say, the newsroom of “Alaska Daily” is more diverse than most.
The show gets some important things right about the process of reporting: A good-faith effort to understand what is happening and why; the process of puzzling things out and bouncing questions off your co-workers; being suspicious of anyone with enough money to influence the way things work — even at your own paper. And nobody sleeps with a source! (I’ll be happy to see that trope die a thousand deaths.) These feel like important concepts for the average person to see in action. Whatever skepticism people may have for the media — and I’m not saying it’s entirely unwarranted — most journalists working at local papers are underpaid but stick around anyway because they have a genuine interest in getting it right. I’ll also note that “Alaska Daily” is scarily accurate about the way journalists lose their minds when there’s free food in the newsroom.
Eileen’s bull-in-a-china-shop routine is a bit clichéd, but it also rings true, to an extent. Newsrooms are full of egos and eccentric characters, some of whom are given free rein in ways that undermine their colleagues, or the work of ethical journalism itself. That seems to be the career track Eileen was on for a long time. Is she really as good as everyone says — or just a hard worker who isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers?
Starting over in Alaska may be humbling, but it doesn’t change her exactly. On the plus side, she has experience and an innate curiosity, two qualities that get her off to a strong start in her new job. And Swank brings the right kind of cantankerous nuance to the role.
“Alaska Daily” — 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: 9 p.m. Thursdays on ABC and streaming on Hulu
Nina Metz is a Chicago Tribune critic