A new season of ABC’s The Newsreader takes viewers back to the ’80s

The bouffant manes and power suits of the 1980s return to the small screen in The Newsreader, with the second six-part season having a renewed focus on problematic newsroom cultures, as well as the stories that went to air.

Sep 11, 2023, updated Sep 11, 2023
Anna Torv reprises her role as Helen Norville in the second season of 'The Newsreader'. Photo: ABC TV / supplied

Anna Torv reprises her role as Helen Norville in the second season of 'The Newsreader'. Photo: ABC TV / supplied

News at Six is back and being fronted by the new golden couple of 1980s television, Helen Norville and Dale Jennings, although an entertainment show in the opening segment has relegated them to silver. Only a year after they became co-anchors, the sheen may already be wearing off.

It is worth a quick recap of season one of this ABC drama to remember how the new guard replaced the old. Helen (the always wonderful Anna Torv, seen recently in the international hit series The Last of Us) is the queen of news, but her former on-air partner, news veteran Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor), has been let go after a heart attack followed by a tantrum. His smug and sanctimonious wife, Evelyn (Marg Downey), went behind Geoff’s back to suggest his news director take him off air, making her the series standout as the one we love to hate. Comeuppance? I think so.

Helen and Dale (Sam Reid) are lukewarm in love and, intentionally or not, the chemistry between them is a fizzer. There is no discernible attraction but then Dale is, as we know, struggling with semi-latent homosexuality that has surfaced twice: once at school, where the police ended up being called, and in a more recent encounter with a sweetly gay cameraman, Tim Ahern (Chai Hansen), who is more understanding than Dale deserves. Helen, who has a secret history of mental illness and pops pills like lollies, mentored him to become a newsreader because she saw his potential.

They are a suitable match and Dale is otherwise as straight as they come – a country boy who listens to his mum and is a bit wide-eyed at being in a Melbourne newsroom (no hint here of the long-haired and lusty Lestat de Lioncourt who Reid played in the TV series Interview with a Vampire). The lack of complexity makes him accessible and serves him well in the job. Gay Dale must stay deep in the closet, although TV personality Gerry Carroll (Rory Fleck Byrne), whose cheesy good looks bring back memories of Don Lane, picks up a vibe.

Golden couple: Sam Reid and Anna Torv as Dale and Helen in The Newsreader. Photo: ABC TV

It is clear from the above that The Newsreader is, at heart, a soap.

The series has none of the glamour or venality of The Morning Show (back for a third season this month, featuring Jon Hamm). The boss upstairs here, Charlie Tate (Daniel Gillies), is conniving but has nothing on The Morning Show’s smiling assassin Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup). But what makes The Newsreader interesting enough to justify a second season – plus a sidebar episode-by-episode commentary podcast from the ABC’s Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar – is its power as a cringe-making artefact and reminder of another cultural era.

The ’80s fashions are the punchlines and there is a lot to love/hate. Commercial female news anchors the world over seem condemned to front up as the hardest and glossiest versions of themselves, dyed and made up to studio-lit perfection. We see Helen at the desk with a bouffant mane of frozen, slicked-back hair wearing brass door-knocker earrings and a power suit. Dale just wears his suit.

But two episodes in and the series looks be focusing on the more serious side of the outrageous sexism and prejudices that permeated newsroom cultures, as well as what went to air.

After a serious misjudgment in News at Six’s coverage of the Hoddle Street massacre, Helen is warned to tone it down, maybe show a tear or two on air. “Because I’m a woman, that’s how I’m supposed to respond?” she asks Tate. “Yes,” is his unapologetic answer. “Okay, I will… recalibrate,” Helen says.

Meanwhile, the newsroom sports jock and occasional newsreader Rob Rickards, a man who knows his limitations (and is beautifully played by Stephen Peacocke), is sleeping in a motel because he’s too scared to be alone.

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What Helen doesn’t know is there is an opinion forming upstairs that when she asks penetrating questions that, for example, kick an election-night story forward, she comes across as shrill and aggressive. The storyline is fiction but the sentiment is not, and it is still something women broadcasters contend with. In the 1980s women were being allowed in the door, but only at the invitation of men and they had to tread carefully. It was fine when Helen was the mere sidekick to Geoff Walters, who wears his gravitas like aftershave. When she takes the lead next to mild-mannered Dale, she is seen as too domineering. How well this storyline plays out could be mark of the show.

The newsroom characters are a delight. What journalist of old wasn’t called a dill by her boss, or sat in mute terror as he strode through the office shouting F***k to no one in particular? A special shoutout to the marvellous William McInnes for his portrayal of Lindsay Cunningham. TV bosses are a breed on their own and McInnes, in a throwback striped shirt with a white collar, gives a ripe performance as the apex media boss, the one who runs a TV newsroom.

“It’s dire, wrist-slashing stuff,” Cunningham says about the tragedy of a woman infected with AIDS after a blood transfusion. He wants it cut to 30 seconds… until she says something inflammatory that sends a dog whistle to all the gay haters.

William McInnes plays TV boss Lindsay Cunningham. Photo: ABC TV

It would be overselling it to call it cultural history – not when Helen, for all her accomplishments, is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Dale wrestles with being gay. But the framework in which the soap plays out carries enough truth to make us all thankful that, in significant ways, time has moved on.

The Newsreader season two premieres on the ABC TV on September 10 at 8.30pm; the first series is available to view now on ABC iview. The companion podcast hosted by Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar will be available on the ABC listen app.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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