It’s January 1986, the week of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Not that the staff of the Australian news network at the centre of new six-part prestige drama The Newsreader (BBC Two, iPlayer) know that yet.
Capable, ambitious and determined newsreader Helen Norville (Anna Torv) has been paired with hapless cub reporter Dale Jennings (Sam Reid) as a way of blunting the impact of her agenda-challenging Monday special reports by sexist dinosaur of a boss Lindsay (William McInnes).
A profile of teacher and first civilian in space Christa McAuliffe is one of the fluffy puff stories Dale recommends.
Worth a binge watch
First shown in its native Australian a year ago, this series went on to storm the 2021 AACTA Awards (the Australian equivalent of the BAFTAs).
Now the BBC have picked it up for weekly broadcast – or a six-hour binge watch if you’d rather go to iPlayer right now – it’s easy to see why.
On the evidence of the first episode, none of this year’s already strong slate of UK telly dramas come close to this beauty of a show.
Authentic ’80s feel
Shot with an authentic period tint and costumes – Torv is transformed into an ‘80s power-dresser when Helen goes before the camera – creator Michael Lucas and director Emma Freeman have created a drama with the visual richness of a big-budget Hollywood movie, and the storytelling intimacy and precision of the very best boxset television.
Reid’s Dale is a complex character, ambitious and desperate to please any superior who can help him fulfil his dream of fronting a news update.
But he’s nice enough at heart that the first person he tells when he gets the call is his doting mum.
His gibbering, too-fast onscreen delivery is the second disaster he experiences in the debut episode.
Great first scene
The Newsreader is self-aware enough to make the first the loss of a chewed video tape with precious footage of Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan making it big in America.
In that beautifully-constructed first scene, we know exactly when and where we are.
The station office is filled with a rich supporting cast, none more grotesque than McInnes’ Lindsay, disdainful of Helen’s attempts to feature stories about “cross-eyed single mothers, AIDS and Christ knows what else.”
Misogynist bully boss
This misogynist bully takes sadistic pleasure in shrieking at Helen about her supported worthlessness in front of the office, and there’s a powerful reverse of those tired old Hollywood cliches of feisty gal reporters shrugging off their bosses’ exasperation here.
At the end of one of Lindsay’s explosions he fires her, and she goes home and attempts suicide.
Only Dale’s attempt to return her handbag saves her life.
Network for the 21st Century
Then Challenger explodes, and she returns to action in a stunning sequence which conveys all the drama of broadcast news as a simple but perfectly managed array of vocal tones and facial mannerisms.
It’s a Network for the 21st Century, except here the politics are feminist.
At the centre of it all is Torv, who fans of the much-missed Mindhunter will know well, and whose performance here is utterly magnetic.
Even Lindsay agrees about ratings winner Helen, “you put a lens on her, she connects”, and the same can absolutely be said of the actor playing her.