ABC’s new drama Alaska Daily snaps into focus as soon as Hilary Swank’s character shows up for work. She plays Eileen Fitzgerald, a hotshot reporter from New York who has taken a job at The Daily Alaskan, and while she’s been cajoled into the small-town gig by a former editor, the paper almost seems worthy of her self-image. On her 4,000-mile flight, she looks up its website and sees a photo of an impressive office building – a glass-and-steel edifice, a beacon of truth in the heart of downtown Anchorage.
But when she gets to town, Eileen discovers the Alaskan has relocated to a strip mall. Inside she finds what remains of the staff, maybe 20 people, spread out over a room the size of a Planet Fitness. It is library quiet.
Eileen charges over to Stanley (Jeff Perry), her editor, and demands an explanation. “What happened to the big glass lobby with the white pillars?”
“Oh, that was the old building, we left it years ago,” he says, barely looking up from his work. “Downsizing.”
That one word — downsizing — encapsulates a wrenching time in the history of media like no other, when the advertising revenue that once sustained print journalism disappeared. In the last 15 years or so, larger newsrooms across the country have been decimated by waves of layoffs, while hundreds of small-town newspapers have simply blown away like the Sunday funnies in a maelstrom.
In the midst of this collapse, the 2015 movie Spotlight reminded us why journalism matters. Set in the pre-decimation period when most big-city newspapers had teams dedicated to longform investigations, it told the true story of a group of Boston reporters who unveiled sex abuse in the Catholic church. Now Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed that film, has created Alaska Daily, and while he’s honest about what contemporary journalism has become, he’s still calling attention to the tremendous impact a newsroom can have, even after downsizing.
When the show focuses on the reward and the struggle of the work, it’s fabulous. We’re quickly dropped into a multi-episode arc inspired by a real reporter at the Anchorage Daily News, Kyle Hopkins, who shared a 2020 Pulitzer Prize with ProPublica for his coverage of Alaska’s epidemic of missing and murdered Native women. (Both Hopkins and ADN owner Ryan Binkley are listed as producers on the series.) The show takes this crisis seriously. Indeed, it's what convinces Eileen to leave the Big Apple behind for, as she calls it, "the minor leagues." But when she gets to work, she learns that Stanley wants her to work with Roz (Grace Dove), an Indigenous reporter who’s just as passionate as Eileen herself (and can return her attitude, with interest). The shrewd old editor sees that the two women have complementary skill sets and common interests, and he trusts they can work out their hostilities over time.
In this and other ways, Alaska Daily resembles the Netflix series Unbelievable (also based on a Pulitzer-winning investigation). Like that show, it also gives its heroine a complicated history. In a performance that recalls the ferocity of her Oscar-winning work in Million Dollar Baby, Swank plays Eileen as an aggressively hostile reporter whose game face is always on. Her career at the Vanguard, which seems to be a proxy for the New York Times, was sidelined when her source on a huge story turned out to be faulty, and she’s been living in exile from the profession ever since. Stanley’s offer is both a lifeline and a reminder of things she’s trying to ignore.
The biggest distractions from this excellent storytelling are the lofty speeches about America’s frayed and fragile public square and the lessons McCarthy thinks we need to learn before our democracy falls apart. But even if it can get preachy, Alaska Daily’s warp-speed dialogue and efficient, network-TV execution ensure that viewers won’t get too bogged down in sermonizing. And most of the journalists on the show are moral citizens who are deeply concerned about and invested in the communities they cover. That should make watching a treat for anyone who has known the satisfaction of ink rubbing off on their fingers as they peruse the morning paper.
Alaska Daily premieres on ABC Wednesday October 6th at 10:00 PM ET. Episodes stream next-day on Hulu.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.