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Review: The Newsreader on ABC TV is sophisticated and enjoyable

The ABC's new drama set in an 80s newsroom intelligently captures the pressure and intimacy of workplace relationships.
Anna Torv in The Newsreader

As the absorbing new six-part ABC drama series The Newsreader begins, it’s January 1986, and nerdy TV journalist Dale Jennings (Sam Reid) is hungry to read the news. But unfortunately, the Melbourne-based News at Six already has a newsreading team: glamorous Helen Norville (Anna Torv) and veteran Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor), who regularly steals Helen’s news items.

Gruff newsroom boss Lindsay Cunningham (William McInnes, who looks alarmingly Kyle Sandilands-esque in a bristly white beard) is sick of having to referee their bickering. He’s also fending off Helen’s demands to be taken seriously as a journalist, dismissing her ideas for special social-issues reports as sob stories about ‘cross-eyed single mothers’.

But when Dale approaches him once again for an on-air gig, Lindsay says Dale can have the on-air morning news update he’s been angling for… if Dale will crush Helen’s story ideas. So far, so Anchorman, with a dash of the 1987 rom-com Broadcast News and UK favourite period drama The Hour.

But what separates The Newsreader from more broadly drawn Australian period-set miniseries such as Paper Giants are its nuanced characters and relationships. This isn’t a pantomime version of the recent past; nor does it lean on the truism that we’re more ‘evolved’ now. Instead, its terrific ensemble cast bring series creator Michael Lucas’s (Offspring, Rosehaven, Wentworth) intelligent story alive. These characters feel like real people with histories and hopes, who have to reconcile trust and loyalty with power and ambition.

This isn’t a pantomime version of the recent past; nor does it lean on the truism that we’re more ‘evolved’ now.

After Lindsay finally snaps and fires Helen (‘You’re a war zone on two legs!’), Dale goes to her house to return the briefcase and notebook she left behind. Finding Helen collapsed after a maybe-accidental overdose of sleeping pills, he half-heartedly invites her to stay at his house, unwilling to leave her alone.

It’s clear that each has something the other lacks: Dale has stability, while Helen has charisma. ‘I am a disaster, but I’m relentless, and I’m loyal,’ she tells him. ‘I think I can make you a newsreader.’ To borrow a line from Starstruck, is she Star Is Born-ing Dale?

Blond, boyish Dale is certainly established as an ingénu: when his awkward first attempt at studio anchoring earns him patronising pity from his other coworkers, including macho sports reporter Rob Rickards (Stephen Peacocke), Helen just laughs sympathetically, then coaches Dale on how to do better. She even says he’ll be ‘20% more attractive’ if he brushes back his hair. The ambiguity of their developing relationship is one of the most interesting things about this show.

Autocue operator Noelene Kim (Michelle Lim Davidson) accidentally learns Helen is at Dale’s house when she calls him about a breaking news story, which makes Dale – but weirdly, not Helen – a target for workplace gossip.

‘I thought he was a poof?’ Rob says when Dale canoodles with Helen at a work party.

This is the kind of talk that keeps cameraman Tim Ahern (Chai Hansen) – whom Helen casually calls ‘Gay Tim’ – firmly in the closet. And the show hints at Dale’s own queerness in a way that adds layers to his entanglement with Helen, which emerges as a mixture of friendship, mentorship, erotic affair, ‘work marriage’ and mutual exploitation.

Read: Ambiguity, archives and the 80s. An interview with The Newsreader creator Michael Lucas

What annoyed me about The Newsreader, however, is that the show clearly wants to present Helen as mentally fragile – a ‘nightmare off screen; but on camera, magic’ – when to me she’s clearly a skilled journalist whose rage and anxiety are entirely logical responses to the sexist barriers she constantly faces as the network’s first female news anchor.

Even while having a panic attack on-air, she remains flawless on camera – but to her colleagues, this doesn’t demonstrate her professionalism, only making her a liability. And I got the strong sense that this wasn’t just their view, which we were encouraged to see as a flawed product of its era; Lucas seems to invite us, the contemporary viewer, to patronise Helen as ‘unstable’.

But this isn’t just a two-hander. Veteran news anchor Geoff is turning 60, and Lindsay tries to edge him out to pasture. But Geoff refuses to go quietly – and so does his sleek, formidable wife Evelyn (Marg Downey) – the Imelda Marcos behind his Ferdinand.

Meanwhile, Noelene’s intersectional precarity – junior, female, nonwhite – perhaps makes her the show’s most sympathetic character to a younger viewer. Everyone at work treats her as a dogsbody, and she has a keener sense of her dispensability than anyone else in the newsroom, though she also fiercely cherishes her ambitions as a producer – and her unlikely alliance with Rob unfolds in parallel to Helen’s and Dale’s relationship.

Other characters behave in ways that are harder to parse in identity-politics terms: at one point, the brown-complexioned chief of staff Dennis Tibb (Chum Ehelepola) contemptuously dismisses a segment featuring Aboriginal Elders: ‘A pack of blackfellas nobody understands!’

Melinda Doring’s beautifully dingy production design, all shades of beige, tan, grey and peach, is a welcome change from the gaudy neon ‘nostalgic ’80s’ we often see on TV. Helen’s house is like an IKEA catalogue from the time, while Dale’s art-deco flat is furnished with shabbier retro furniture, like hand-me-downs or op-shop finds.

Costume designer Marion Boyce similarly leans in to the muted colours and boxy cuts of ’80s grown-up businesswear. It makes sense that the makeup girl has the edgiest outfits; but as a child reader of Women’s Weekly during this period, I also loved the Maggie Tabberer-style draped silhouettes, popped collars and statement jewellery that Evelyn wears.

It’s almost incidental that The Newsreader pivots on stories that you might remember, if you’re old enough, as huge Australian TV news events – the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the appearance of Halley’s Comet, Lindy Chamberlain’s release from jail, the Russell Street police bombing, and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

This enjoyable, sophisticated series reminded me of the underrated show Halt and Catch Fire, which is set in the US computer industry at around the same time (and streaming now on SBS On Demand). The Newsreader is at its best when it conveys the mingled stress, thrill and intimacy of working closely and creatively under pressure.

4.5 Stars out of 5: ★★★★☆

THE NEWSREADER
Creator: Michael Lucas
Executive Producers: Joanna Werner, Stuart Menzies, Brett Sleigh, Sally Riley
Producers: Michael Lucas, Joanna Worner
Writers: Michael Lucas, Jonathan Gavin, Niki Aken, Kim Ho
Director: Emma Freeman

The Newsreader premieres on ABC TV and ABC iview on Sunday 15 August, 8:30pm

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).