The Newsreader season two review – raises the stakes and ups the ante

September 10 2023

Anna Torv and Sam Reid are back for a second season of the hit newsroom drama, which picks up with the 1987 election looming

Luke Buckmaster

Sun 10 Sep 2023 10.00 AEST

The first season of ABC’s engrossing period drama The Newsreader created a vivid depiction of an Australian TV newsroom from the 1980s via two thoroughly appealing lead characters: Anna Torv’s Helen Norville and Sam Reid’s Dale Jennings. The former is the big-name presenter, headstrong and high-hatted, the latter an ambitious but kinda dorky newcomer whose star is on the rise. The will-they-won’t-they romantic tension between them resulted, as viewers will recall, very much in “they did”. But Helen and Dale’s relationship is just one foundational aspect: important but not a crux upon which the show rests.

That newsroom setting is the central, unifying element, not just a space for drama but a means to approach history from an interesting perspective: not in the thick of it, but not entirely detached. Events bubbling away in the background of the first season included the release of Lindy Chamberlain from prison and the bombing of Melbourne’s Russell Street police headquarters. The second series – with returning creator Michael Lucas and director Emma Freeman – begins with the 1987 federal election looming.

This event isn’t exploited for its Don’s Party-esque potential to evoke discourse around worldviews and political orientation; it’s purely used to dramatise behind-the-scenes machinations of broadcast television.

Season two (this review encompasses the first four episodes) raises the stakes and ups the ante. The plotting is pointier, the performances more lived in, the conversations about media issues more pronounced and integrated in ways that feel totally germane to the drama. For instance the network’s big boss (Daniel Gillies) believes Helen’s style is “too dominant” and “too aggressive” (criticisms very rarely levelled at men), and the second episode explores the perennially relevant ethics of giving airtime to potentially dangerous perspectives, such as a weaselly gun advocate trotting out that old half-baked line about how responsible gun owners aren’t to blame for mass shootings.

The writers (Michael Lucas, Kim Ho, Adrian Russell Wills and Niki Aken) establish a neat format, merging Australian history with moral discussions and interpersonal dynamics. It all comes together very smoothly and the cast are uniformly excellent. Torv and Reid continue to impress in the meatiest parts but the supporting cast are on point too. Particularly Michelle Lim Davidson who, as producer Noelene Kim, brings great poise, a complex mixture of worry and compassion in her eyes. And William McInnes is again irresistible as the big, bellicose, bear-like head of the newsroom, now struggling to deal with a CEO who wants the network’s brand to adopt the tone of a “backyard barbecue”.

The period details are fun: I’m not sure why but I really enjoy watching people talk on brick-sized cordless phones from the 80s, reminding us that today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s passé. Maybe everybody has something they aesthetically appreciate from the era, and The Newsreader feels like a convincing impression of the past, boosted by a dulled colour scheme applied to cinematographer Earle Dresner’s images, visually implying a distant era without making too much of it.

As I noted in my review of the first season, however, the central newsroom is surprisingly diverse for the time, suggesting the producers weren’t prepared to fully represent the extent of Australia’s history of notoriously white male-centric media. (There also doesn’t seem to be smoking in this newsroom, even though journos in the 80s would’ve been sucking down durries.)

For the most part though, this is a series that doesn’t shy from potentially difficult subjects, including the aforementioned gun debate, Dale’s bisexuality (which he struggles to come to terms with) and Aboriginal rights. The latter is explored in episode four, when we meet Lynus Preston, one of the key organisers of the Bicentenary Aboriginal protests – played with great presence, as always, by Hunter Page-Lochard (whose best-work includes the wonderful dance film Spear and Indigenous superhero story Cleverman).

The Newsreader’s second season makes it clear that in any conversation about quality Australian shows about the media, this one will be on the tip of everybody’s tongues. We still love you Mike Moore and the rest of the Frontline crew – but Helen and Dale are next level.

Season two of The Newsreader premieres Sunday 10 September at 8.30pm on ABC TV and ABC iView. Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar are hosting a companion podcast, available via ABC Listen