Award-winning Australian miniseries, The Newsreader (released domestically in 2021 and getting its US debut now on Roku Channel) is something of a bait and switch act. The critically acclaimed drama about the 80s television news scene starts off as a look at the sexism and racism surrounding the Australian broadcasting industry before revealing its gay heart.
In 80s Australia “women roar and men thunder”, as rock group Men At Work put it. It’s 1986 and Prime Minister Bob Hawke is riding high and adored by the public for sculling a yard glass of beer. Crocodile Dundee is about to be released, cementing a vision of Australian men as coarse and rough with a heart of gold. It was also an era rife with sexism, racism, and homophobia.
Helen (Anna Torv) is a successful newsreader looking for respect. Her co-anchor Geoff (Robert Taylor) is a 30 year veteran of Australian news, and she is expected to be a pretty face serving up ‘human interest’ stories. Her ideas for more hard-hitting pieces are rejected and she is constantly belittled for being emotional, “a war zone on two legs”. Meanwhile, a green reporter, Dale (Sam Reid), is trying to make a name for himself, longing to be the newsreader. As the events of the year unfold (from the Challenger disaster to the onset of the AIDS crisis) Dale and Helen are thrown together, becoming an attractive power couple in the eyes of the press. News director Lindsay (William McInnes) is almost relieved to find out that Dale isn’t “a poof”.
Under the direction of Emma Freeman, The Newsreader has an almost hypnotic pace, even when it is pushing the drama. Opening scenes of Dale panicking in the face of a live TV deadline have an icy glaze. Helen is often harsh and comes close to falling into the ‘career-driven bitch’ trope, but is pulled back by Torv’s nuance and the relationship she forms with the sweet but equally as driven Dale. Helen is, in her own words “a disaster”, “But I’m relentless, and I’m loyal,” she tells Dale, “I think I can make you a newsreader”.
The opening episodes play out like a nostalgic period piece, using the external events of the year to provide the drama. But the show gets far more interesting as it progresses and the characters start to reveal themselves. To The Newsreader’s credit, as much as it flirts with obvious drama, it opts for more layered storytelling.
Dale is visibly uncomfortable being sent on assignment with a cameraman (Chai Hansen) who is jokingly referred to as “gay Tim”. But this isn’t a simple ‘closet-case’ story, Dale’s past is more complex than that and his relationship with Tim exists in grey areas so familiar to those who are living in the closet. Helen and Dale’s relationship is both emotionally deep and unconventional. At times there’s a mentor/student dynamic, but is it all a ‘marriage of convenience’ or is there more to it? As the AIDS crisis unfolds each of the characters has to choose which side they stand on.
Even the series’ apparent villains are given a sympathetic edge. Aging newsreader Geoff is being pushed out the door on his 60th birthday and desperate to prove his worth, leading him to make some horrid decisions to stay relevant. A side plot of brash sports reporter Rob (Stephen Peacocke) pursuing an up-and-coming Asian producer, Noelene (Michelle Lim Davidson), may be a little clunky in its highlighting of the casual racism of the age, but it does provide some welcome comedic moments. It’s like an offbeat rom-com happening on the side of the main narrative.
This is a complex, rewarding drama that reminds me of the brilliant and underrated Halt and Catch Fire. It’s a nuanced a period drama filled with unexpected touches that elevate it above the pack. The Newsreader went on to win five AACTA Awards in Australia, including Best Lead Actress in a Drama for Anna Torv and Best Supporting Actor in a Drama for Will McInnes. It may frustrate some who want a preachier tone, but if first-rate performances and emotional grey areas are your thing, this one’s for you.
By Chad Armstrong
The Newsreader is streaming for free everywhere The Roku Channel is available.