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Alaska Daily review – this astonishingly basic drama would be better without Hilary Swank
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Alaska Daily review – this astonishingly basic drama would be better without Hilary Swank

Whatever happened to Hilary Swank? Her Oscars for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby were 20 years ago but, although she’s worked fairly steadily since, you can award yourself a quiz point for naming more than two of her more recent roles, and a bonus if you can think of something that was a hit. Alaska Daily, a homely, heartfelt drama about a local newspaper with Swank as its Hollywood wildcard, was cancelled a year ago in the US after one season, so we already know it’s not the show to break the actor’s long run of bad luck.

At first we’re standing, awestruck, in the lavish offices of a New York news outlet. Manhattan sparkles outside the building’s wide windows; a big screen above the journos’ heads, constantly updating which stories are going viral, tallies numbers that end with several zeros. This is the big time. Eileen Fitzgerald (Swank), crack reporter, chugs coffee and is rude to an underling: she’s on a deadline, dammit, and the scandal she’s about to unleash is going to bring a corrupt politician down. As she types, it’s a wonder her keyboard does not catch fire.

A perfunctory 10 minutes later – the scoop ends Eileen’s national media career, and whether it does so in a plausible way isn’t really important – she is touching down in Anchorage to reluctantly take on a new role as a reporter on the Daily Alaskan, a struggling regional title. The office is in a strip mall; the screen monitoring web traffic confirms that no story ever goes viral. This is many, many miles away from the big time. Eileen, with her red wine, Rolling Stones T-shirt and overwhelming assertiveness, vows to teach these yokels a thing or two about newsgathering. But hey, guys, listen up. It’s just possible that the diligent plodders of the Daily Alaskan, with their old-timey ways and their wholesome outlook, might have some lessons for Eileen about life.

It takes time to acclimatise to just how basic Alaska Daily is. No fish-out-of-water cliche is left unturned as Eileen boggles at how quiet the streets are, and scoffs at the prospect of wearing a sleep mask before realising she needs one to block out the midnight sun. Her morning run – powerfully pounding the tarmac, staring dead ahead – is interrupted by a majestic moose. On her first night in the local bar, she picks up a kind, patient bear of a man who finds her brusqueness equally intoxicating and intimidating. In her new workplace, the editor Stanley (Jeff Perry) is a wily old stager, his hiring of Eileen a last broadside against the cuts and corporatisation that are killing the industry he loves; the news editor (Matt Malloy), whom you would guess was called Bob if you weren’t told, is a conservative traditionalist, aghast when Eileen jeopardises his cosy relationship with the cops.

There’s a tale of the week and a season-long arc, the latter being a sort of Hallmark version of True Detective: Night Country in which Eileen investigates the murder of an Indigenous woman, the latest in a series of similar crimes in which the police do not seem interested. Eileen is paired with native Alaskan Roz (Grace Dove), who at first resents the intrusion but soon comes to respect Eileen’s ability to cut through the institutional walls of silence that have long maligned Roz’s people. Any viewer who doesn’t see why Roz feels so close to the case is put straight by some unbelievably on-the-nose scripting: “For me, this story is deeply personal!” she tells Stanley. “It’s about my community!”

That plotline, with its hint of grit, doesn’t feel like it’s where Alaska Daily’s heart really lies. Episode two packs Eileen and Roz off to chase a clue, leaving the junior hacks to look into the sudden closure of a beloved diner, which for generations has been a place where citizens get together and amicably chat. This is, in a way, bolder storytelling than the murder strand: a righteous parable develops about the polarisation of society, brought on by the digital world replacing debate with all-out rhetorical battles. The rejection of culture wars and plea for open-minded tolerance are unabashed in their honesty and simplicity, as are the show’s overarching sentiments about geographic inequalities and the quiet tragedy of local newspaper journalism becoming extinct. The twist is that there isn’t one.

Somewhere in here is a daringly kind and low-key show about the importance of small things and the value of humble decency, which – if it were possible to get such a thing commissioned in the first place – would be better off without the contrived antagonism of a big-city firebrand shaking everyone up. Unfortunately for Hilary Swank, Alaska Daily doesn’t really need her.

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  • Alaska Daily aired on Alibi and is available on Now

Source: theguardian.com