Brilliant performances & storytelling bring to life a fascinating but scary era of television and headline news.
If you were there in the ’80s, you will have so much fun watching The Newsreader.
If not, ABC’s new drama will be a revelation as to how television news was made with clunky satellite links, mangled tapes and screaming news directors whose fortunes were won and lost on ratings numbers and what the bosses “upstairs” dictated (what’s changed?).
Michael Lucas’ 6 part essay on the inner workings of a fictional News at 6 newsroom is part workplace drama and part news events time capsule. But they mingle together deliciously.
Careers rise and fall around the Challenger Disaster, Halley’s Comet, Lindy Chamberlain, Russell St. bombing, AIDS crisis and Chernobyl -all of them in 1986. Like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom real-world events are the backdrop to the characters’ arcs, but this time they centre around a torrid relationship between rising reporter Dale Jennings (Sam Reid) and ambitious news anchor Helen Norville (Anna Torv).
Both work under Head of News Lindsay Cunningham (William McInnes), a terrible tyrant who barks orders from his desk, demeaning anybody who gets in his way -especially Helen whose modern style and challenging personality grates.
“I’ve got 20 girls just like you ready to go tomorrow!” he yells.
Then there is veteran anchor Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor) whose presenting style is never to emote or upstage the news itself. Sharing the desk with Helen, who manages to convey feeling and drama with her delivery, tests his place in the evolving world of television. Yet his society wife Evelyn (Marg Downey) is even more demanding and manipulative.
In the middle of it all is Dale, a smart if sometimes awkward young reporter, trying to land good stories and leapfrog in this very messy hierarchy.
News boss Lindsay initially dismisses his ambitions with a savage critique.
“When the camera goes on a particular sort of person, the viewers feels very secure. Look at Helen.
You put a lens on her, she connects. But other people? Nothin!” he insists.
Dale soon bonds with Helen in a tryst of convenience, but there is more to this than meets the eye…
The newsroom is also home to Chief of Staff Dennis (Chum Ehelepola), Autocue Operator Noelene (Michelle Lim Davidson), Sports Reporter Rob (Stephen Peacocke) and Cameraman Tim (Chai Hansen). Production designer Melinda Doring has perfectly rooted them in boring brown, overflowing ashtrays and box monitors, matched by retro costumes, hairstyles and 80s songs.
Anna Torv’s character may be reminiscent of Jana Wendt, at least in her on camera persona, but visually I was reminded of former 10 presenter Annette Allison. Sam Reid handles the nuances of his rudderless reporter with aplomb, and the more the series goes on the more you will appreciate this balancing act.
William McInnes is sensational as the bullying boss and it was particularly pleasing to see Marg Downey allowed to show her dramatic subtlety as the woman behind the TV star. Award nominations to come…
All of Lucas’ references to Ray Martin, Harry M. Miller, 60 Minutes and chequebook journalism demonstrate insight into a ferocious era, but one brimming in misogyny, racism and homophobia. These make the ride brilliantly entertaining and scary all at the same time.
You’ll probably laugh and cringe in equal measure, and be thankful we have moved on. I think.
The Newsreader airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC