ABC’s new drama Alaska Daily is basically three different shows lurking under the same title. One is good, one is fine, and one is terrible.
Guess which one Alaska Daily spends the least amount of time on?
Created by Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, the show begins with Eileen Fitzgerald, a celebrated reporter played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank. A big scoop, about the country’s proposed new secretary of defense, blows up in her face when her sourcing is challenged, and soon her only employment option is to move to Anchorage to work for her former boss Stanley Cornik (Scandal alum Jeff Perry). Like most newspapers across the country, Stanley’s operation has seen better days, and he now oversees a skeleton crew of reporters operating out of a strip mall newsroom. Eileen soon teams up with local reporter Roz Friendly (Grace Dove) to look into a pattern of murdered indigenous women whose deaths have been largely ignored by local authorities.
There are familiar elements of various older series, most notably CBS’ Nineties Alaska dramedy Northern Exposure(*) and the final season of The Wire, where McCarthy himself played a reporter who got away with inventing stories because his paper’s staff had been stretched so thin. Eileen spends a lot of time making the wrong assumptions about her new home, Roz and other staffers are annoyed to have this outsider bigfoot in on their work, and all of the reporters struggle to do their jobs in the “more with less” era of massive print-media budget cuts. Even the main idea of women’s deaths being ignored because they’re not white has been covered in other shows, like FX’s Texas-Mexico border drama The Bridge. You know the deal.
(*) There’s a scene in the second episode where Eileen is shocked to see a moose while out on a morning jog, which brings to mind the moose that ambled through the fictional town of Cicely, much to the dismay of Northern Exposure New York expatriate Joel Fleischman.
The series was inspired by a joint investigative journalism series by the Anchorage Daily and ProPublica into the overlooked problem of murdered indigenous women. Not surprisingly, that is McCarthy’s main focus in the two episodes critics were given for review. We know from Spotlight that he understands how to dramatize the inherently slow, shoe-leather aspects of reporting. As writer and director of the pilot episode, McCarthy does a solid enough job, even if the level of specificity that’s so apparent in his films (see also The Visitor and Win Win, among others) has been sanded down by the process of making a broadcast network drama.
The main issue with the murder story, though, is that it involves Eileen Fitzgerald, who is among the more insufferable TV protagonists we’ve had in a while, and not necessarily in a way that Alaska Daily intends. She is smug and imperious whenever dealing with colleagues (both at the new paper and the one she quits when her defense secretary story gets challenged), seems to have put no effort into learning about her new turf before flying in, and seems shocked and offended whenever someone like Roz or news editor Bob (Matt Malloy) suggests that she doesn’t understand how to get things done around here. The show seems aware of her abrasiveness to some extent, in the way that happens with the protagonist of every fish-out-of-water story. But Eileen in every scene is either in the wrong, or comes across as so condescending that it doesn’t matter when she’s right. (She and Jeff Daniels’ pompous character on The Newsroom would get along famously.)
As with her last series, the short-lived Netflix astronaut drama Away, there’s also the issue of Swank coming off as humorless on a show where her co-stars — Perry in particular — are finding ways to have fun even when the material is fairly serious. Which brings us to the version of Alaska Daily that works best, in part because it’s the one that least involves Eileen: an overextended group of reporters and editors struggling to cover all the important issues affecting America’s physically largest state. It doesn’t have the high-concept hook of a murder investigation, or even of a disgraced professional having to rebuild her career from scratch, but the show seems most comfortable on this very fertile ground. The second episode, for instance, spends a lot of time on Claire (Meredith Holzman) trying to figure out why the owner of a beloved local restaurant — famous for banning all talk of politics, religion, or other sources of conflict, so that neighbors can dine together in peace — is selling the place to a fast food chain. This turns into a look at the larger problem of being a reporter in a society where, as Claire puts it, people “don’t want to be informed; they just want to win the argument.”
Even that corner of the series isn’t perfect. Claire’s article on the restaurant issue (which we hear as narration) is really an opinion column, and any editor, even in this undermanned environment, would tell her that’s not really her job. There’s also an ongoing plot about rookie reporter Jieun (Ami Park) struggling with the idea that reporting on political corruption can hurt the families of the corrupt officials, and none of her colleagues is convincingly able to argue that the crooked politicians are the ones who should feel guilty, not Jieun. (There’s a story in the pilot that overlaps a lot with the ongoing Brett Favre/misappropriation of funds scandal unfolding in Mississippi, but it plays very differently because Jieun is sad about the wrong part of it.) But on the whole, the scenes where we are in the newsroom, or watching the supporting characters do their thing away from Eileen, are by far the series’ most effective, and feel the most sustainable if ABC wants Alaska Daily to be a long-term player.
Odds are against it, though. The TV public has never had much of an appetite for dramas about print journalism, outside of Lou Grant, which had the unique advantage of being a spinoff of a beloved sitcom (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Meanwhile, few remember the likes of Capital News or Deadline, each of which lasted a month despite being created by TV titans David Milch and Dick Wolf, respectively. And both of those debuted at a time when far more people cared about newspapers than unfortunately do now. But then, far more people cared about broadcast network television in those days than they do now, too, which means ABC might be more inclined to be patient with Alaska Daily. But the show would require a fairly significant refocusing for that to be worth anyone’s time.
Alaska Daily premieres Oct. 6 on ABC. I’ve seen the first two episodes.