Hilary Swank Went All the Way to Alaska to Save Network TV

Sergei Bachlakov/ABC
Sergei Bachlakov/ABC

It was a mere month ago that I was so beleaguered by the state of the network television drama that I declared the entire genre dead. Yes, I’m well aware of how repugnant it is to reference myself right off the bat, but you must understand: I was hopeless. I was fed up. I had watched so many hours of middling-to-bad network shows that I finally threw my hands in the air and my television off the balcony. And I stood by that statement…until now.

I am here today to tell you that I was wrong. So wrong! Tail between my legs, devote-my-life-to-making-amends wrong. The network drama is not dead, it just had to take a seaplane off the mainland in order to thrive—some 2,000 miles northwest to Alaska, to be exact.

You’re looking at (well, you’re reading) a certified Alaska Daily devotee. No doubt you’ve heard of the new ABC drama series, which premieres Thursday night. Its marketing budget seems to have no cap. Ads have been popping up on bus stops, billboards, and poster walls all around major metropolitan cities. But this isn’t just a show for us coastal elites, oh no. We’d venture that every American has, at this point, spotted an image of the show’s star, two-time Oscar-winning star, Hilary Swank, shooting a determined look over her shoulder while browsing the web or amidst an episode of Abbott Elementary or The Conners.

It turns out that ABC was right to give the show such an aggressive push. Watching it, I felt a sensation I hadn’t in far too long: This is something new. That’s within reason, of course. This is not game-changing on the level of, say, Severance. But I’ve been sold shit wrapped in glitter too many times by networks. I can safely say Alaska Daily is nothing of the sort. This is the rare, modern network drama to balance mass appeal with semi-progressive ideology. Led by an absorbing performance from Swank (who shocked the world this week with the announcement that she is pregnant with twins at age 48), Alaska Daily is the most intriguing new show on network television.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Sergei Bachlakov/ABC</div>
Sergei Bachlakov/ABC

Fortunately, Alaska Daily doesn’t take long to get to that point of excellence.

Eileen Fitzgerald (Swank), a journalist who has spent months tracking down a source for an exposé on a corrupt American general, is experiencing a swift fall from grace after her source’s veracity is publicly questioned. Stories of Eileen’s gruff treatment of the junior staff at her newspaper don’t help her case, either. (Apparently, in the Alaska Daily universe, we here at The Daily Beast are leading the charge for her cancellation!)

Eileen steps down from her post, deciding to turn her exposé into a book. When she’s approached by her old colleague Stanley (Jeff Perry) to come work at a local Alaskan daily, she initially balks at the suggestion. She’s eventually convinced after hearing about a nefarious string of unsolved murders of Alaska Natives, which Stanley wants her to investigate. And so Eileen heads to Anchorage, electrifying their newsroom with her hardened, know-it-all attitude.

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Alaska Daily borrows the narrative format of many successful dramas, like Veronica Mars, by balancing a new, local problem each week with a larger, overarching mystery. These micro-whodunits are where Alaska Daily mines a great deal of its charm. They perfectly illustrate the show’s suggestion that, despite all of its natural beauty, Alaska has just as much of a dark underbelly as anywhere else.

No one knows more about that than Roz (Grace Dove), a gallant Alaska Native assigned to work alongside Eileen. Solving the case will require both Roz’s intrinsic, lifelong knowledge of Alaska and its Native population, as well as Eileen’s decades of investigative experience. Both women are too spirited to accept that working together is best for the story, but have no choice other than to butt heads and make it work.

If all this sounds formulaic, it’s because it is. But what’s wrong with sticking to a recipe that everyone enjoys? As long as you make sure to add a couple of extra spices for a little bit of a kick. Here, that zest comes from Swank and Dove, who have terrific working chemistry. Their shared turgid stubbornness means that they have much more in common than they realize. It’s no surprise that Swank is sensational in this kind of hard-nosed role, and Dove more than holds her own alongside such an established screen presence.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Christopher Willard/ABC</div>
Christopher Willard/ABC

Alaska Daily also delivers an interesting take on cancel culture. Before you close out the browser tab you’re reading this on, hear me out for just a moment. Indulge me, as Eileen Fitzgerald indulged the prospect of lending her talents to the greater Alaska journalism scene.

Normally, any show in which a character says, “Stop acting like a bunch of scared woke wussies more interested in eating their own than reporting the news,” would send my eyes rolling like a hamster wheel out of control. But I was surprised by how well the show navigates the portrayal of a reporter working in a field where the culture is changing by the second.

Eileen is an investigative reporter, someone whose job it is to piss people off for the greater good of the public. It’s only natural that she would have a difficult time adapting to a different set of standards and practices. She’s a woman who didn’t come to prominence in her career by making friends, and she’s tired of watered-down, overly sanitized journalism that lacks sting. But it’s that callousness, which gets in the way of her being a decent human, that really triggers her downfall—not a journalistic source that needs more verifying. She thinks that her “cancellation” is a result of the feeble state of media, completely ignoring that all anyone is asking her to do is have some compassion.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Darko Sikman/ABC</div>
Darko Sikman/ABC

Eileen might have more formal experience than her peers in the Anchorage newsroom, but in a place like Alaska, that only gets her so far. She sees her fellow reporters’ abilities to ingratiate themselves as a weakness, when it’s really one of their biggest strengths. The only way she’ll be able to solve these murders before someone else turns up dead is to find out why her walls are so impenetrable.

Still, Mare of Westtown this is not. There’s little stylistic flair, and the show rests on its beautiful scenery (which, I might add, is Canadian—we are being sold a lie) and strong performers to elevate it beyond your typical procedural. But it also understands that some lightness is necessary. Alaska Daily is corny at times, and it knows it. It embraces it! Its attempts to take that corniness and match it with social relevance may not work every time, but each try still managed to charm the hell out of me. I’ve even gotten to the point where I’ve been lamenting all week, to anyone who will listen, “I need more Alaska Daily.”

While its central mystery is certainly engrossing, I’m inclined to stay in Alaska for the locals. I’d happily watch six more seasons of Alaska Daily if it was merely just a small-town procedural, with Hilary Swank and her wiry wig—meant to convey Eileen’s lack of concern for anything but the truth—solving episodic mysteries with her intrepid cohorts. But Alaska Daily seems to have higher ambitions than that. Instead, it’s settling nicely into a fluffy but pertinent take on the importance of journalism. A network drama that doesn’t sacrifice its social tenets for mass appeal: Who figured we’d have to go all the way to Alaska to get that?

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