The Newsreader: A superb Aussie drama set on the Frontline of '80s TV journalism

March 24 2022

EVIEW: It’s late January 1986. Paul Hogan has just been named Australian of the Year, Alan Border has presided over one of the country’s cricket team’s darkest days (a 206-run One Day International loss to New Zealand) and News at 6 co-host Helen Norville (Anna Torv) may have read her last bulletin.

As the excellent six-part Australian period media drama The Newsreader (which debuts on Discovery’s new channel Eden this Thursday at 8.30pm) opens, she has finally had enough of broken promises and frustrated ambitions.

Boss Lindsay’s (William McInnes) pre-Christmas promises of reading leads and weekly special reports have so far come to nothing and – when pressed – he’s been openly hostile towards her.

“You’re not Barbara bloody Walters. I’ve got 20 girls just like you ready to go tomorrow,” he yells, as she storms straight out of the building.

It’s a turn of events that shocks the fresh-faced Dale Jennings (Sam Reid). A “very good producer and OK reporter” (according to Lindsay), he has his sights set on a newsreading role, having just agreed to work as Helen’s producer, in exchange for a shot at the morning updates.

Desperate to save the situation, he check in on Helen, only to discover her lying unconscious. When she refuses the “potential scandal” of being taken to hospital, he decides to take her in, with a view of nursing her back to health.

Meanwhile, in Helen’s absence, veteran co-anchor Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor) and his scheming wife Evelyn (Marg Downey) spy a chance to use the vacuum to their advantage. Evelyn insists that now is the time to push for Geoff to increase his profile and be sole anchor, but when the nightly ratings fall off a cliff as soon as Helen is absent, even Lindsey begins to question whether he’s made a mistake in not bowing to some of her demands.

Set against the backdrop of a fertile and turbulent time for world events, Michael Lucas’ (Offspring, Five Bedrooms) six-part drama’s template might be Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom or Abi Morgan’s The Hour, but it’s hard not to watch without thinking of that brilliant Australian current affairs show satire Frontline. That’s especially thanks to some of the colourful and kooky characters amongst the staff, from jocular sports reporter Rob Rickards (Stephen Peacocke) to the humourless Geoff and the blustering Lindsay.

What grounds the show though – and makes it compelling viewing – is the seemingly unlikely relationship between Helen and Dale. Like Newsroom’s Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale, or perhaps even more like that show’s Maggie Jordan and Jim Harper, it’s the pair’s differences that make them so complementary. I liked how he softened a few of her edges, but, even more importantly, she inspired him to greater heights and more self-assuredness. Watching them combine and spark off one another during a key broadcast was potentially as enthralling as if it had been the real thing.

But for all Reid’s (The Hunting, The Astronaut Wives Club) understated impressiveness, this is really Torv’s (Fringe, Mindhunter) show. Looking almost like a dead ringer for Cate Blachett, she delivers a performance of power, grit and authority that her more illustrious countrywoman would be proud of. In Torv’s hands, maybe Helen Norville is actually Australia’s answer to Murphy Brown or Mary Tyler Moore.

Regardless of any such futile comparisons, she is what drives The Newsreader and why it is shaping up as the free-to-air show you need to see this autumn.