The Newsreader review – engrossing period drama brings an 80s TV newsroom back to life

ABC TV’s new period drama, created by Michael Lucas and directed by Emma Freeman, begins with a scene dramatising what people who work in the media know is indeed very dramatic: the pressure to meet a looming deadline.

Based in the world of television news circa 1986, the scene is nothing if not quintessentially Australian, involving a go-get-em young TV reporter named Dale (Sam Reid, who played the priest in Lambs of God) scrambling for footage of Paul Hogan after a video cassette is chewed up in the editing room.

Several elements in this introductory moment are configured to communicate the period setting: a mounted telephone on the wall; a Betacam machine; a retro watch (the kind that are now back in vogue) worn by the newsroom’s chief of staff (Chum Ehelepola). The content of the story itself – Hogan winning the 1985 Australian of the Year award – is one of the smaller stories the series revisits from a fictionalised behind-the-scenes media perspective. Others include the release of Lindy Chamberlain from prison and the bombing of the Russell Street police headquarters in Melbourne.

Overlapping these stories are the narratives of the two principal characters: Dale and superstar newsreader Helen (Anna Torv), who is pricklier and more standoffish than the former – though her character avoids, due to intelligent writing and Torv’s layered performance, the “careerist ice queen” trope. Dale, who longs to be a newsreader also, practises his best newsreading voice early on, establishing the series as being in part either about following your dreams, or the egocentric aspirations of media personalities – your choice.

A rotund, grey-haired and bear-like William McInnes, with red cheeks and a wall-rattling bellow, plays the head of the newsroom, Lindsay, who pairs Dale up with Helen, leading to a tense professional relationship that softens when Dale discovers her one evening passed out on her floor. The use of this event as a MacGuffin to develop a bond between them reminded me of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, when Jack Lemmon discovers Shirley MacLaine after a suicide attempt, the beauty of their relationship borne from that dark moment.

In The Newsreader, Torv and Reid share an almost complete lack of sexual chemistry – which works to the show’s advantage. The question of “will they or won’t they”, which might have felt pointless in another series, is genuine here. Both actors deliver fine performances as characters you want to keep spending time with, though you’re not sure exactly why. They’re not particularly charming people – though they are likeable and relatable (also highly ambitious, hard-working, driven and conceited). Helen is a nuanced character from the get-go; Dale develops dimensions over time.

The series isn’t as personality-driven as productions centred around real-life media subjects tend to be, for perhaps obvious reasons, such as Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo (chronicling the formation of Cleo and the career of Ita Buttrose) and the 2007 telemovie The King (a biopic of Graham Kennedy). Nor does The Newsreader reflect a firm sense of the politics of the period (unlike Paper Giants, which begins around the time of the election of Gough Whitlam) or a period of media transformation (unlike The King, which contemplates the early years of television). Instead the context is a period, the 80s, which seems, in terms of the media landscape, relatively cruisy in hindsight: well after the advent of TV and prior to the intense disruption of the online era.

There are, unsurprisingly, scenes depicting sexism, sometimes subtle and sometimes rampant (“You’re a war zone on two legs,” Lindsay at one point hollers at Helen). However, the show is pretty toothless in terms of industry and cultural commentary. The newsroom is also surprisingly diverse given the period and the notoriously white male-centric Australian media. This reflects a conundrum for the producers: do you insert more diverse roles into historical settings, risking inaccuracy, or sideline certain kinds of people, potentially exacerbating the problem?

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The Newsreader’s placid and non-confronting tone, reflected in the graceful camerawork and scaled-back colour schemes of cinematographer Earle Dresner (who shot The Commons and 2067), is dramatically interesting. The show has a way of wrapping us up in the characters’ lives, pushing their personalities and circumstances to the fore. So much so that what it does raise, in media commentary, feels organic to the story – including issues relating to paying interviewees and examples of how a single quote can, and often does, change the entire hook of a news story (a particularly memorable one occurring in episode five).

Freeman (whose oeuvre includes Stateless, Glitch and Tidelands), Lucas and their co-writers (Niki Aken, Jonathan Gavin and Kim Ho) show a knack for using real-life media stories as the scaffolding for character-related fiction, the former complementing the latter, without big-noting the subjects or rearranging history. It’s a well-told and engrossing drama, offsetting the franticness of a tumultuous industry with a dignified sensibility.

Maybe that’s the core appeal: being guided through calamity by a steady, sensible hand.

The Newsreader premieres on 15 August on the ABC and iView