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The TV creator’s equivalent of the trolley problem: A TV show is like a runaway trolley. Broadcast is still the best way to run over (or reach) the most people, and if you stay the course, you might reach (or run over) five people, but there aren’t any TV critics or Emmy voters in that direction. But if you pull the lever, you shift tracks and go down a cable or streaming direction and you may reach (or run over) only one person, but that person is really influential and might tell everybody that you’re making great art, which is bound to be gratifying (and means you didn’t kill five people, if you’re really stuck on the original analogy). As much as you might think you want to go down both tracks at once, you can’t.
Fine. You can try.
I give you Tom McCarthy’s new ABC drama Alaska Daily, which attempts to be half hifalutin cable drama, complete with an Oscar-winning star and a provocative ProPublica investigative report as its source material, and then half quirky fish-out-of-water workplace dramedy using an Alaskan newspaper as its backdrop. In the two episodes sent to critics, neither half is fully developed and the tonal choices in each half work against the merits of the other. It could be fun! It could be important! Instead, it’s clumsy and didactic and yet, in this moment of pathologically low-ambition broadcast dramas, Alaska Daily is at least more interesting and ambitious than the umpteenth Dick Wolf procedural or Monarch.
Alaska Daily — written and directed in pilot form by McCarthy before shifting to a standard non-auteur broadcast committee approach — stars Hilary Swank as Eileen, dogged investigative reporter for The Vanguard, a prestige online publication meant to resemble either ProPublica or a complete journalistic fantasy. Eileen breaks a huge story involving a shady general being appointed to a cabinet position, but when her lone source — even though the entire premise of the show is that she’s a great journalist, she very obviously isn’t — falls apart, Eileen lands in big trouble and begins whining about being canceled and the “woke wussies” masquerading as reporters.
Note: Eileen isn’t a great person. She’s abusive to underlings, has a distorted sense of her own skills, and her martyr complex is really obnoxious. I’m pretty sure McCarthy, Swank and the show recognize how flawed she is, but because it’s a broadcast show, they can’t simply make her an antihero. The notes of forced and artificial Eat, Freeze, Love charm added to the character just don’t work. I like unlikable! Come on, Eileen!
Anyway, Eileen is on the ropes, professionally, when former colleague Stanley (Jeff Perry) recruits her to come work for the Daily Alaskan in Anchorage, luring her with steady employment and a potentially huge story involving missing Indigenous women. Of course, once she actually gets to Anchorage, Eileen has to spend at least as much time dealing with her slightly quirky colleagues (Matt Malloy, Meredith Holzman, Grace Dove, Pablo Castelblanco, Ami Park, Craig Frank), experiencing disorientation caused by the extended daylight hours — Eileen should have watched Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia, co-starring Hilary Swank — and encountering moose (meese?) on her daily run.
So you have the Eileen storyline, in which she’s eventually paired with Dove’s Roz, Alaskan Native herself, mostly so that Alaska Daily isn’t just a straight-up white savior narrative. You can imagine this as an eight-episode Netflix miniseries (see the superb Unbelievable, also based on a ProPublica investigation) or an FX drama, though I can’t imagine either version of that story ending its pilot with a character, problematically one of the show’s people of color, genuflecting before Eileen and declaring, “I know Anchorage is the last place in the world you ever expected to end up after the career that you’ve had, but we’re very lucky to have you.” Ick. That’s just one of a half-dozen lines in the pilot emphasizing Eileen’s greatness as a reporter, though any time the show attempts to actually illustrate that greatness, it’s through scenes where she condescendingly explains very, very basic journalistic principles to her new co-workers.
Swank is a terrific actress, and she has a couple of humorous beats here that actually took me by surprise, but she is not a good enough actress — no human would be — to convincingly deliver dialogue like “Ironic, isn’t it? I spent my whole career battling a bunch of good ol’ boy misogynists, only to get canceled for being one myself. So yeah, I’m done. I’m DONE! I’M DONE!”
You know that as much as Eileen is in Alaska to break this story and help Alaskans, she’s really there to learn things about herself. This you know because a dude who picks her up at a bar tells her, “Alaska has a funny way of revealing things to you, about you.”
After the offensively glib way the disappearance of Indigenous women was treated as a fifth-tier storyline on ABC’s Big Sky, at least Alaska Daily is trying, though making a story about a white woman getting her groove back thanks to reporting on missing Indigenous women is mighty parasitic. Still, there are a number of Native actors and actresses cast in key roles, and parts of the setting are authentic and distinctive. The series wasn’t able to shoot in Alaska, but the British Columbia locations at least look and feel different from your standard Vancouver masquerade.
But no broadcast network would ever have the confidence to let a show focus exclusively on a single journalistic investigation. That’s where the ensemble comes in, given one collective investigation per week into semi-Alaska-specific stories like a local diner being replaced by a burger chain or misappropriation of local infrastructure funds. These cases give the other characters things to do, and I would absolutely watch a series that was a pure ensemble focusing on the importance of local journalism even and especially in distant places like Alaska. The strip mall setting for the newspaper is fairly fresh and fairly fertile ground for commentary on the financial struggles of newspapers like this.
These secondary storylines and their attempts at character-building would play better if they didn’t have to hinge on Eileen periodically offering rudimentary wisdom like “If something is a public record, you have to demand it” or “The police department is not your friend.” The supporting actors are all fine and all playing second fiddle to Swank, like their characters are to Eileen.
Heck, you could even still have a character like Eileen being canceled by the “woke wussies” — she’s halfway between Bari Weiss and Maggie Haberman — and just make the show Men in Trees meets Northern Exposure with just a dash of Spotlight. The broadcast show. Actually, I’m sure you could make the show that was Spotlight with a dash of North Exposure. The cable/streaming show. McCarthy, a director who works best playing with the subtleties of quiet moments, can’t find the right track on which to direct this trolley.
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