The Newsreader review – why is this 1980s TV newsroom drama so dismissive of its female lead?

These days, difficult women are all the rage. Not the case in 1986. At least, that’s the message behind this award-winning drama set in an Australian news station. The titular newsreader is Helen (Mindhunter’s Anna Torv): slick, glam, extremely competent and desperate to cover harder-hitting stories (Thatcher’s premiership; the quickly worsening Aids crisis). These requests for more – more gravitas, more responsibility, more attention – are not exactly welcomed by her irascible, vaguely pervy boss, Lindsay (a man). In fact, they are greeted with a barrage of misogynistic abuse that, in the opening episode on BBC Two, culminates in her sacking. In response, Helen goes home and overdoses – our first clue that this outwardly formidable woman suffers from serious mental health issues. Not just difficult, then, but “unstable” too.

Weirdly – considering the show’s title and 2022-friendly themes (women having a hard time, men being horrible) – Helen is not The Newsreader’s protagonist. That role is filled by Dale (Sam Reid), a conscientious journalist and fledgling reporter who dreams of graduating to the main desk. Sadly, Dale is disastrously bad at reading the news – awkward, flustered, unable to pace himself – something he showcases to the nation when he temporarily takes over Helen’s job during her absence.

Why we are given Dale when we should be getting Helen – both as an anchor and as the focus of the programme itself – is a head-scratcher. It makes a neat narrative device for the show to contrast the reception these two ambitious journalists get: Dale also demands more, but his nagging is viewed as admirably enthusiastic, while Helen is seen as a pushy, deluded, egotistical nuisance (an exaggerated but still effective example of the double standards that continue to this day). Yet the show itself also feels somewhat complicit in these stereotypes, seemingly not believing that Helen is sympathetic enough to be the main character. Dale provides a more palatable nucleus for the drama: a respectable, chiselled, good-guy hero to cushion the more complicated real star.

Speaking of real stars, we get an awful lot of them in the two opening episodes, as the team report on the Challenger space shuttle’s explosion and then Halley’s comet. Actual news events make up a significant portion of The Newsreader’s plotting, and the brief time period covered by the first series was a wise choice, with its abundance of high-stakes drama, including the release of Lindy Chamberlain, whose baby was snatched by a dingo six years previously, the Russell Street bombing and Chernobyl. This concentration of action gives the series a frenetic energy, a sense of lurching crisis, yet also euphoria. The show is excellent at capturing the weird, restrained elation that a large-scale tragedy can bring to a newsroom – a place where the overlap between global disaster and personal opportunity is significant – and neatly sums up something decidedly murky about journalism in the process.

The news-heavy plotlines are told in a straightforward, largely traditional way, and that makes sense: there’s a lot of exposition and detail to incorporate if everyone watching is to grasp the significance of these events. However, this approach can feel a bit basic – especially compared to a show like The Crown, which knits 20th-century history into a meaningful and often offbeat rollercoaster ride. Yet this trip down memory lane complements a subtler, mysterious and slower-paced set of character-driven storylines. Helen’s mental health struggles are gradually teased out over the series, while Dale’s backstory is only vaguely hinted at in the first few episodes (his intriguingly uncomfortable flirtation with cameraman Tim might have something to do with it). Helen and Dale’s budding romance, which develops in an unusually ambiguous way, is made even more compelling by these shrouded histories. It helps that both performances are brilliant; Reid is wholly convincing as a reserved nice guy with hidden depths (and as a man for whom reading the news is tantamount to rocket science). Torv, meanwhile, deserves global acclaim for her portrayal of Helen, a cracklingly sensitive woman in a job where emotion is taboo; a raw nerve sheathed in oversized shoulder pads.

Costumes aside, however, it is hard to feel fully enveloped in The Newsreader’s world. A sense of time and place – so evocatively captured in the opening five minutes, when we see Crocodile Dundee’s Paul Hogan wisecracking about his Australian of the Year award – soon fades away, replaced by a more generic backdrop that smoothes out the quirks of the period and the setting. That’s not to diminish the things The Newsreader does well: this is a classy, well-acted period drama, a slow-burn character study, a nifty pop-history lesson and a crash-course in retro TV news. But its lack of specificity, plus the way it seems to shrink away from its fascinating, disruptive female lead, means it doesn’t end up nearly as gripping or unmissable as the historic TV moments it brings back to life.