Film and TV

Review: ‘Alaska Daily’ turns an HBO-ready premise into broadcast TV. And it works

HILARY SWANK

I have been catching up with ABC’s recently premiered “The Rookie: Feds,” in which Niecy Nash-Betts stars as a middle-aged high school guidance counselor turned FBI “probie.” (I say “middle-aged,” but that isn’t a description that sticks easily to Nash-Betts.) It’s an over-the-top action cartoon, in which scenes dealing with personal relationships, health challenges and workplace plotting occasionally give way to running around with guns drawn. And it’s completely enjoyable, made by people who seem to be having a good time, with a diverse cast of characters who take no more than a minute to fully classify and comprehend and are all the more enjoyable for it.

There is a quality to broadcast television. Not “quality” as betokens high-class, Platinum Age TV, but a certain something you don’t readily find on streaming or premium platforms — something that continues to attract what nowadays are considered large audiences without translating to trending tweets, critical hubbub or (“Abbott Elementary” notwithstanding) year-end awards.

It’s not that network series are without gravitas, or art, or nuance, or something to say — they sometimes have a lot to say, in a very loud voice — but the rate at which they unfold and the way they relate to their viewers are special to the platform. You can only go so dark for so long on network TV, where viewers come for comfort and resolution. Dramas are nearly always leavened with comedy and characters who are designed to be liked, and who you hope will like each other. Broadcast shows offer easy pleasures, and this tends to be true of the middling ones as well as the best. (And even the worst.) The venue will tolerate a good deal of cliche and corniness and obviousness. Characters tell you who they are and what they’re thinking straight out. Text trumps subtext.

“Alaska Daily,” premiering Thursday on ABC, has an impressive pedigree. It was created by Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abusers in Catholic clergy; it stars Hilary Swank (another Oscar winner); and it borrows its long arc from a series of articles, reported by the Anchorage Daily News in conjunction with ProPublica, about official indifference to missing or murdered Indigenous young women. Had it been made as an HBO miniseries, to which the subject would easily lend itself, it would be a different thing entirely, somber and atmospheric and cinematic. As a network series, it is something broader, more immediate, less subtle. TV not as cinema but as television, an Arctic Circle “Lou Grant.” Gestures are bigger, speeches are speechier, the workplace quirkier.

Swank plays Eileen Fitzgerald, a hotshot investigative reporter who leaves a job at a New York publication called the Vanguard when the veracity of an article she had researched for months is called into question; on top of that, complaints about how she treats the staff, “especially women,” have crept into social media. Calling her colleagues “a bunch of scared woke wussies more interested in eating their own than reporting the news” — she does have a bit of an attitude — Eileen walks out the door and into her apartment, where she goes to work on a book, rides a stationary bike and waits four months — cue title card — for the show proper to begin.

This commences with the arrival of Stanley Cornik (Jeff Perry), an editor Eileen hasn’t seen in 17 years (another job she left on bad terms), who is now running a newspaper in Anchorage, The Daily Alaskan. He offers her a contract, specifically to get to the bottom of a cold case — the barely investigated death of an Indigenous young woman — suggesting there is a pattern of neglect that she could help to remedy, and a story that could “change the national conversation.”

Her first reaction is to be insulted (“It’s the minor leagues, I’ve paid my dues”) and turn him down. Once she finishes her book, she says, she’s out. (“I’m done, I’m done, I’M DONE!” she cries, in rising levels of hysteria.)

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“Come on, Fitzgerald,” Stanley replies, sounding a little like Cary Grant trying to keep Rosalind Russell from going off to marry Ralph Bellamy, “you’re a born reporter — you’re one of the best.”

She knows it, and soon enough she finds herself in Anchorage, only to discover that the paper she’s signed on with is housed in a strip mall, with a staff of 25, several of whom have speaking roles. Chatty Gabriel (Pablo Castelblanco), who used to work at the drive-in coffee place outside, welcomes her with excitement; senior reporter and acting news editor Bob Young (Matt Malloy) is ready to be irritated. Helpful Austin Teague (Craig Frank), whose child spooks Eileen by popping out from beneath her desk, lets her know that they have no LexisNexis account for research, and that the printer sometimes works.

Then, to their mutual initial displeasure, each claiming she only works alone, Eileen is teamed with local star reporter Roz Friendly (Grace Dove), who is temperamentally her twin — which is to say, heads will butt. (Eileen, who is impatient with the paper’s willingness to accept no from authorities when yes is the legally proper answer, knows how to get things done; but Roz, who is Indigenous, knows the territory, and keeps this from becoming a white-savior story.) From a viewer’s standpoint, how they get along with one another is as important as the story they’re following — you know they’ll get to the bottom of that, because successful reporting is the point of the story, but you’re not completely sure about the relationship.

While Eileen and Roz go about knocking on doors, bothering the police and various gatekeepers, following one lead to the next, their colleagues handle episode-length stories. Cub reporter Jieun Park (Ami Park) looks into the story behind the arrest of a naked young man waving a gun, which leads her to confront the question of whether protecting a subject’s personal life is more important than telling the truth about him. Veteran Claire Muncy (Meredith Holzman) investigates the pending sale of a beloved diner to a hamburger chain, which has locals up in arms (the classic “couple of dozen people in a parking lot carrying picket signs” scene), which gets us to thoughts about an angry world where opinions are valued more than facts.

In the two episodes out for review, Eileen also sleeps with a “pilot poet” (he might have flown in from “Northern Exposure”) she meets in a bar and who tells her, “Alaska has a funny way of revealing things to you about you”; suffers random panic attacks; encounters a moose on her morning run; and is harassed by an anonymous “concerned citizen,” who tells her “Alaska doesn’t need another corrupt reporter spewing lies.” Well, that isn’t going to fly.

Everything leads to an overtly inspirational moment, line of dialogue (“This job isn’t easy and we don’t do it to be liked — we do it because it matters”), or newspaper column read as narration. Like “The West Wing,” another product of network television, it is a tract in the form of a drama, making the case for the dedicated maintenance of a pillar of democratic society. I can’t argue with that.

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