Nostalgia isn’t The Newsreader’s secret weapon – there’s nothing secret about the way it flashes around old money, old cars and old logos – but as it returns for its second season the 80s-set drama has a much more recent past to worry about.
Two years is a long time in television, and 2021 feels even further away than that. Other pandemic-era hits faded fast once audiences left the house; will returning to the past have the same appeal now the present seems just that little bit less grim? If the first few episodes are any guide, fear not: 1987 looks like being a very good year for the News at 6 team.
The series begins with the Federal election only days away, and ‘the golden couple of news’ – that’s Helen Norville (Anna Torv) and Dale Jennings (Sam Reid) – are making a promotional appearance on Gerry, a Don Lane-esque variety show hosted by Irish comedian Gerry Carroll (Rory Fleck Byrne). Gerry’s more interested in where the on-and-off-air couple are heading, but Helen directs all marriage questions to Dale, who seems more keen to talk politics. Boring!
Any threat of relationship issues vanishes by the time the couple return home, with Helen fully understanding of Dale’s bisexuality and Dale fully committed to her. Well, at least until Gerry points the way to a future where he can seemingly have it all – but that’s later in the episode.
Their slowly developing bond was a major thread in season one; season two seems set to throw fresh obstacles in their way. While Dale’s dramas are more personal – last season’s cameraman and love interest Tim (Chai Hansen) is back in a future episode – New station owner ‘Little Charlie’ Tate (Daniel Gillies) sees the station vibe as closer to a backyard barbeque than the aggressive approach Helen takes.
She’s once again going to be staring down the barrel of a business where sexism and rusted-on stereotypes rule. And if producer Lindsay Cunningham (William McInnes) wants to keep his job, he’s going to have to get on board.
Speaking of old-timers, no-one at the News at 6 office is missing former colleague Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor), but the crusty old icon of newsreading has landed on his feet with a new gig at a rival network and a wealth of election coverage experience he’ll be bringing to bear on the big night. He’s even got his daughter Kay (Phillipa Northeast) back from London, though the way both Geoff and wife Evelyn (Marg Downey) are handing her cash – plus her pilfering on the side – suggests she’s brought a very expensive habit back with her.
As for News at 6’s knockabout face of sport Rob (Stephen Peacocke) and autocue operator-turned producer Noelene (Michelle Lim Davidson), their office romance isn’t quite as secret as they think. But that’s not the real problem. Noelene is clearly a producer on the way up and she’s working hard to make that happen. An open office romance would put a dent in her prospects, and making a full commitment to Rob would involve coming to terms with the fact his relationship goals are more of the family variety.
The first season of The Newsreader was one of those surprise hits that shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Combining a well-crafted relationship drama with Australia’s seemingly endless desire for dramatic re-enactments of recent history as seen by the media (see mini-series like Howzat and Paper Tigers) should have been an obvious sure-fire winner. Usually if there’s a way to fumble a catch, local drama will find it: thankfully the producers of The Newsreader turned out to be a safe pair of hands.
A big part of what makes the show work is that it’s one of the busiest Australian dramas around. All of the aforementioned plotlines take up a fraction of the episode; many of them only get a brief scene or two. The bulk of the first episode is devoted to News at 6’s election night coverage, which starts out on a knife-edge thanks to Tate running promos committing the team to having an election result by 7.45pm, and only gets worse as their other big draw – an exclusive chat with Paul Keating – proves harder to land than they thought.
The Newsreader largely avoids the trap of looking down on those who had the misfortune to live in more primitive times, but modern views still sneak through. The election night plot resolves itself via the very 21st century reveal that audiences, even on a massive news night, prefer their news to be entertaining. Then again, future episodes have Geoff hosting a firebrand current affairs program that’s not afraid to go personal, which tracks for late 80s Australian television; fingers crossed we get to see a sketch comedy show do their take on him a la Fast Forward’s Hinch parody Hunch.
And it wouldn’t be a show set in the past without a line of slightly-too-blunt dialogue reminding us that yes, we are watching a show set in the past. There’s a moment where Gerry is doing a bit on how he knows who’ll win an election by asking himself who the nation’s top sportsman would vote for. ‘Here in 1987,’ he says, ‘it’s clearly Wimbledon champion Pat Cash’.
The occasionally clunky line aside, here in 2023 The Newsreader remains a winner.
The Newsreader airs Sundays at 8.30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.