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The Hilary Swank-led journalism drama can’t get out of its main character’s head
Hilary Swank, Alaska Daily
In the first episode of Alaska Daily, Eileen Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has a panic attack en route to America’s largest state. Then, as her plane begins its descent, she Googles, "What is a panic attack?" In the second episode, she asks Siri if moose are dangerous. This is a portrait of a "born reporter," according to Alaska Daily, a show with an admirable commitment to the work of reporting — the unglamorous business of chasing down leads — but a funny view on what it takes to be good at it. It certainly isn’t a matter of expertise.
Eileen comes to Alaska by way of New York City, where she’s disgraced after publishing a bombshell story with only one anonymous source. Her former boss, Stanley Cornik (Jeff Perry), recruits her for his Anchorage newspaper by dangling an important case in front of her nose: the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, as told through a particular cold case. Alaska Daily, airing Thursdays on ABC, was created by Oscar-winning Spotlight writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was inspired in part by a series of reports from the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica on sexual violence in Alaska and the systemic failures that contribute to it. ADN reporter Kyle Hopkins and president Ryan Binkley are both among the show’s executive producers.
Focusing on people who do this kind of work is a good pitch. Alaska Daily arrives at a time when most broadcast lineups seem to be closing in on themselves: the Law & Orders, the One Chicagos, the FBIs, the Rookies. If a network drama isn’t extending the universe of an existing franchise, it might be starting one. Characters in uniforms and badges are solving big-city crimes on television, same as they always have, but they’re increasingly crowding out shows about anything else. Comparatively, Alaska Daily lets in a little fresh air. It’s a TV throwback, a mix of an abrasive-genius procedural circa 2012 and a Northern Exposure-style story about eccentric locals circa 1992.
But what kind of reporter is Alaska Daily? So far, it’s kind of a patronizing one, limited by the same self-congratulatory shortsightedness that limits Eileen. The show’s most glaring flaw is at its center: a New Yorker telling Alaskans how to write about Alaska, a white woman telling her Native coworker how to solve the murder of an Alaska Native woman. In her investigation, Eileen is partnered up with The Daily Alaskan‘s Roz Friendly (Grace Dove), an Alaska Native journalist with personal ties to this crisis. Roz is the show’s best character, a sharp reporter who resents Eileen’s intrusion and tells her so, and the second episode improves on the first by giving Roz more opportunities to be the authority in the room. It’s not like Alaska Daily doesn’t recognize its main character’s faults. It’s just that it doesn’t devote a lot of time to them, because the only trait that makes Eileen good at her job — a supernaturally high tolerance for being disliked — keeps getting things done.
Take the end of the pilot, written and directed by McCarthy. The last shot is of Eileen having another panic attack, a hint that the series might eventually crack her shell. But immediately before she’s left clutching her chest in the parking lot of the Anchorage strip mall that is now her office, she rallies young reporter Yuna Park (Ami Park) with a rousing speech about why journalism matters, urging her to publish a story even if she makes a powerful enemy in the process. (Yuna, strangely, is scared for the powerful man, not of him.) You might expect this kind of fish-out-of-water tale to end with the locals teaching the protagonist a thing or two; instead, Eileen gets a hug and an affirmation. "We’re very lucky to have you," Yuna says. The pacing of the scene turns Eileen’s panic attack almost into an afterthought, witnessed by no one as the episode fades to black. She might struggle in secret, but as far as her coworkers are concerned, they’re the lucky ones, graced with the pep talks of this Manhattan big shot.
The actors do what they can to complicate that dynamic. Swank is saddled with the role of self-important killjoy, but she calibrates Eileen’s prickliness with just enough respect for her colleagues to keep things interesting, and her co-stars make the supporting characters easy to like. But the show undermines them, playing up Alaska’s folksiness to the point of being condescending. The streets of Anchorage, a city with roughly the population of Orlando, Florida, are somehow deserted during the summer tourist season. In the pilot, a local bartender (Kourtney Bell) who moved to Alaska from Houston sizes up Eileen as a transplant based on her "demeanor" (correct) but also her hair, a baffling comment considering the fact that Eileen is styled like someone whose hair routine takes five minutes. People brush their hair in Alaska too. Hearing that Eileen came from New York to work at the Alaskan, the bartender jokes, "Damn, throwing ambition to the wind."
Alaska Daily doesn’t agree with her publicly, but it might agree privately. The Alaska of this show is not meant for ambition; the Last Frontier is the territory of personal revelation. According to Eileen’s one-night stand, Jamie (Joe Tippett), "There is a theory that outsiders come to Alaska for one of two reasons: to disappear or to reinvent themselves." Eileen insists that’s not true for her; she came for a job. Maybe, the show winks. If Alaska is a stop on her road to enlightenment, even as Native women are murdered there, the ethics of her tourism go unquestioned.
Grace Dove and Hilary Swank, Alaska Daily
Jamie, meanwhile, is both a bush pilot and a poet, and the series treats him like a marvelous rarity, as if it can’t recognize what it looks like for someone outside New York to care about the arts. (I spent a year in Southeast Alaska, where people used the dark winter months to get really good at a lot of hobbies. If anything, compared to some people I met, Jamie is underachieving.) And yet Roz is surprised by him too, a symptom of Eileen’s outsider perspective seeping into the show’s. It’s a missed opportunity that Alaska Daily isn’t more impressed by the people who live there, especially considering that the show is simultaneously building up the state as an ideal fresh start.
McCarthy has said he knew little about Alaska and had never been before he began working on Alaska Daily, which helps explain why the show is focused on an interloper. But centering Eileen drains the series of the sense of personal violation that made McCarthy’s earlier take on journalism so wrenching. If the Spotlight reporters could lay bare the sins in their own community, why do Alaskans, and particularly Native Alaskans, need a translator? Indigenous-led series like AMC’s Dark Winds and FX on Hulu’s Reservation Dogs are modeling how not to over-explain themselves. Of course, those shows don’t air on broadcast television, which still holds certain viewers’ hands. Still, it’s a nice thought experiment to imagine a version of this show with Roz at its center and Eileen as her sidekick. Alaska Daily doesn’t need to lose Eileen to work. It just needs to stop treating her like the best reporter in the room.
Airs: Thursdays at 10/9c on ABC
Who’s in it: Hilary Swank, Jeff Perry, Grace Dove, Ami Park, Meredith Holzman, Craig Frank, Matt Malloy, Pablo Castelblanco
Who’s behind it: Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy (creator), The Resident‘s Peter Elkoff (showrunner)
For fans of: Northern Exposure, Spotlight but with moose
How many episodes we watched: 2