“This is exactly why local journalism matters,” big city investigative journalist Eileen (Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Million Dollar Baby”) proclaims to one of her new co-workers towards the end of the pilot episode of “Alaska Daily.” This overly earnest, yet nonetheless true maxim is the beating heart of Tom McCarthy’s latest foray into television. Slightly hobbled by the limitations of network television, the newspaper drama is at its best when it keeps its focus on the overarching true crimes on which it is based.
Like his Best Picture-winning film “Spotlight,” the primetime drama takes a nuts-and-bolts approach to the methodical, thorough, and unromantic process of true investigative journalism. Inspired by a series of articles from Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica entitled “Lawless: Sexual Violence in Alaska,” the show uses the investigation behind missing and murdered indigenous women as a way to showcase the importance of journalism in a time where most people get their news by just reading headlines or worse yet, tweets.
As harried journalist Eileen, two-time Oscar-winner Swank finds a role she can really sink her teeth into. Although in the pilot episode her range is constricted to mostly scowling and bursts of untoward anger, as the series progresses the actress imbues the character with greater depth than is likely on the page. We meet Eileen just as she is let go from her cushy job at New York-based online publication for publishing a story without a reliable source and constantly berating younger staff members/lamenting the situation, she finds it ironic that she “spent [her] career battling the good old boy misogynists, only to be canceled for being one” herself.
This sequence features plenty of buzzwords and digs at “wokeness” to establish Eileen as part of an old-school way of behaving in a professional environment, as if it doesn’t matter how a person behaves as long as they do “good reporting.” It appears maybe Eileen will unlearn some of this “brilliant jerk” behavior as the show progresses (only the first two episodes were offered for review), and she is forced to work with a generation that believes they can do their jobs well, while also treating people with respect.
Disgraced, Eileen finds herself in Alaska after her old editor Stanley (Jeff Perry, “Nash Bridges,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) offers her a job investigating a cold case involving one of the many murdered indigenous women whose deaths have been largely swept aside by the local police department. Eileen, along with her new co-worker Roz (Grace Dove, “Bone of Crows”), slowly unravels the mystery, revealing a much larger systematic epidemic that reaches beyond one murdered woman.
Dove is a real find, imbuing Roz with gumption, guile, and grace. At first, hesitant to work on the story because she didn’t think “doing it right” was an option, Dove and Swank make a dynamic duo, with just the perfect balance between friction and chemistry. As the two uncover more facts in the case, McCarthy wisely concentrates on the fact-finding process over dwelling on the grisly details of the crime. “Alaska Daily” soars when it keeps its focus on these two and their burgeoning investigation, especially when Dove is at its center.
However, due to the expectations put on a weekly primetime drama airing on network TV, each episode also features a story-of-the-week structure. While this format does allow McCarthy to spend time with some of the paper’s many reporters, including rookie Yuna (Ami Park) and seasoned veteran Claire (“Blow the Man Down,” “The Sinner”), it also allows him to wade into some hinky middle ground thematics reminiscent of that terrible Springsteen Super Bowl commercial.
In the show’s second episode, Claire investigates why the owner of Rita’s, a local diner, is selling her beloved business to Big Burger. The result is a hamfisted lecture on how no one listens to each other anymore because they’re too busy screaming at each other, and how people, “don’t want to be informed, they just want to win the argument.”
While there is certainly some truth to this observation, it’s unlikely a lecture from a character on TV is going to do anything to change how people engage with the news and with facts. At this point in his career, McCarthy should know that showing the effects of this behavior would be a stronger method of persuasion than telling an audience how stupid they are.
Although Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, with 40% of the state’s population, at just less than 300K inhabitants, McCarthy has decided to treat this location as a small town with all the quaintness and quirkiness television is convinced that entails. Along with this condescending way of treating the city as an oddity, it also weirdly attributes a kind of wholesome purity to the population that is equally ridiculous. We’re supposed to believe Rita’s was a local institution, but the show never bothers to really build out the community around it. There is no locale in the show’s local journalism.
While adding these story-of-the-week plot lines is true to the everyday workings of a daily newspaper, they not only sideline the central mystery, it essentially relegates these dead women into a background in which McCarthy explores these other themes he’s more interested. I couldn’t help but think of Jane Campion’s far superior “Top of the Lake,” whose first season managed to juggle several themes without ever losing its main focus on the indigenous women at its center (although it also, unfortunately, did so by centering on the investigation and redemptive journey of a white woman).
Swank and Dove are well worth watching, however, despite its good intentions, the first two episodes reveal “Alaska Daily” to be yet another run-of-the-mill drama. Worse, it uses the real-life trauma and neglect of indigenous women as a soapbox for McCarthy’s views on how the “American people” have lost their way, rather than shine a light on their stories and their lives for their own sake. [C+]
“Alaska Daily” debuts on October 6 on ABC.