Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” is the single best film about journalism of our era. So while it comes as no surprise that the writer-director’s take on life at a daily paper for ABC is substantially better than the average 2020s network drama, it’s certainly good news.
On the McCarthy-created “Alaska Daily,” Hilary Swank plays Eileen Fitzgerald, a high-powered newspaper reporter whose reporting comes into question in the pilot’s early going; her losing her job is as much about the claims against her work as it is about the fact that her sudden vulnerability opens up a conversation about her habit of talking down to colleagues. Suddenly, she’s spinning her wheels, endlessly reporting a book that may never see daylight; the conditions are perfect for her to accept the offer of a former mentor (“Scandal’s” Jeff Perry, excellent) to take a job in Anchorage.
Swank, who has not consistently been served well by television, has a strong handle on her character here — it’s a type she has always played well, so hard-driving that she can be willfully blind to her flaws. Eileen’s competitive streak means that she lives very close to the edge, and what feels to her like passion looks for all the world like an unhealthy addiction to anger, culminating in panic attacks.
The question the show poses for Eileen is whether she can share the best of her professional experience without succumbing, once more, to the ways in which being in the fray destroys her. And the setting provides ample opportunities to explore this challenge. Not merely is there rich and thoughtful texture in, say, the ways in which Eileen and her new colleagues cover Alaska’s Native population —not a subject with which Eileen has deep familiarity, and one that her colleagues feel their paper has not historically done justice. Her colleagues’ relative greenness means that Eileen must find a way to school them without giving way to her worst impulses. (Her grudging, competitive but collaborative relationship with a younger reporter played by Grace Dove is a particularly sparkling element of the strong pilot.)
“Alaska Daily” is not entirely averse to cliché — Swank’s workaholic journalist is a type we’ve seen before, and a fish-out-of-water story has certain beats it will inevitably hit. But the strength of the show is in burrowing into character and situation to find something fresh behind the basics. The pilot shows promise for what may, with time and care, bloom into a strong entry on ABC’s schedule, and a welcome weekly dose of McCarthy’s sensitivity and skill.
“Alaska Daily” premieres Thursday, October 6 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.