When TV makes shows about TV, it rarely has a good word to say for itself. In the likes of W1A, The Day Today and, savagest of all, Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, the industry has looked in the mirror and ripped itself to shreds. What all these comedies say, in their own way, is that most TV is bombastic, brain-dead, two-star crap put together in a blind panic and a moral vacuum by idiots and monsters. Second only to politics, it’s the satirists’ biggest sitting duck, the gift that can’t stop giving.
The Newsreader, a new newsroom drama, turns out to be cut from different cloth. It’s set in Australia and the 1980s, for one, which means it’s about neither here nor now. Prepare for niche references to Allan Border, or Allan Broader as he’s called by a debut anchorman nervously misreading the autocue. (For context, that’s a cricketing misnomer on a par with, say, Ben Strokes.) But you won’t actually need to know your baggy green captains to feel at home, or remember who crocodile-wrangling Paul Hogan is or was.
If time and place put The Newsreader at a double distance, the most alienating thing is that it’s actually quite sweet and warm. It would be easy to make fun of news bulletins in the pre-digital age, but that would be punching down. In the opening scene a chewed-up VHS tape establishes that we have travelled back to the past. Everything else still feels familiar. The boss is a shouty old bully. The senior newsreader is an ageing alpha male who conspires to keeps his ambitious female co-presenter down. Television still lives in a version of this world, what with women until recently denied equal pay by the BBC.
At the heart of the story is preppy young producer Dale Jennings (Sam Reid), a news nerd who practises his bulletin voice in the car and the bathroom. When his chance to read the news eventually comes it’s a train wreck, but he’s soon coached to do better by Helen Norville (Anna Torv), the firecracker female newsreader with whom he forms an uplifting, patriarchy-undermining alliance.
While there’s plenty of levity, there is seriousness too. The big news event in the first episode is the mid-air explosion of the USS Challenger, which is unflinchingly shown on screen – twice. The final episode (of six) will bring Chernobyl. Aids also lurks in the wings. Amazingly, The Newsreader was filmed in Melbourne in and among Australia’s super-restrictive lockdowns. That it’s being aired at Sunday primetime on BBC2 is, at a guess, down to the interrupted supply line of homegrown drama since the pandemic. It deserves it. It’s old news, but good news.
In other ways the media landscape has mutated beyond recognition. Take the cautionary parable told in the absorbing documentary My Insta Scammer Friend. Its anti-heroine was Caroline Calloway, a young American who joined Instagram in its infancy and began posting images of her wonderful life as a Cambridge student swanning around Europe. With long oversharing captions she had soon hooked a vast young female following. ‘She was kind of like me but better,’ explained one repentant woman who had sucked it all up. The relationship bloomed into full co-dependency: they rejoiced in the illusion of friendship while she landed a fat book deal.
Hubris came about only when Calloway started marketing herself in real life as a hostess of so-called creativity workshops. Hosting, it turns out, requires more effort and organisation than posting. Fans twigged that they had been gulled, though efforts to cancel their fallen idol failed when she simply rebranded herself as a scammer. She gets full marks for brass neck.
Teenage girls discovering their icons have feet of clay is a modern rite of passage. Formerly it might be revealed that their fave boy-band mannikins were actually into LSD and orgies. Nowadays too-good-to-be-true influencers are exposed for monetising fantasy. In this tale of mutual enablement, each needy party was the other’s Frankenstein’s monster. The interviewees, several filmed doing their make-up, are wise and articulate about their false prophetess only after the event.
Alas it was a no-show from the belle of the ball. A complex character who got in too deep and has since gone to ground like a cryptoqueen of Instagram, she did submit a self-exculpating statement. More revealingly, in a podcast she bragged about ‘how hard it is to conjure money, fame and power out of thin air’. Perhaps someone could find work for her and her magic money tree at the Treasury.