Harnessing the power afforded an Oscar winner, let alone someone with two little gold men on their mantel, is a delicate endeavor. On the one hand, an Academy Award is forever. It’s an honor that becomes an honorific — attached to your name from the moment it’s won until well after it can’t be attained again. But despite its seemingly timeless distinction, an Oscar can still fade along with the star it’s tied to — becoming a descriptor in name only, without the capacity to command the attention it once did.
Hilary Swank, a two-time winner of the film world’s top prize, and Tom McCarthy, a three-time nominee who took home the trophy once himself, are in no danger of losing the respect earned from works like “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and “Logan Lucky,” as well as “Spotlight,” “Up,” “The Visitor,” and “The Station Agent.” But it would be hard pressed to spot any of the ambition put into those acclaimed projects in the pair’s TV collaboration.
“Alaska Daily,” created by McCarthy (who writes and directs the pilot), and starring Swank (who also serves as an executive producer), is objectively not good. Perhaps one could argue that if the goal was to make two episodes of procedural television that are utterly indistinguishable from the decades of procedural TV that preceded them, then, yes, OK, maybe the creative team behind “Alaska Daily” did right by their charge. But at best, the first two hours are forgettable. At worst, they’re insulting — to anyone who’s actually lived in a “small town” and to anyone who expects more from people clearly capable of it.
The latter point proves particularly vexing — given the series’ half-assed attempt to explain the divisive state of America by claiming a lack of effort on “both sides” — but that, at least, is an Episode 2 problem. First, we have to meet Eileen Fitzgerald (Swank), an award-winning investigative journalist working on a story that could oust the President’s pick for Secretary of Defense. Eileen claims she’s done her homework. She’s spent five months on the article, met in secret with high-level sources, and vetted the damning materials herself. Somehow, despite all this, she only has one source — or so claims an inquisitive legal assistant shortly before the report publishes — and before we can tell if Eileen is, in fact, a bad reporter, she’s getting doxxed by her enemies, hung out to dry by her editor, and “canceled” by people she refers to as “scared woke wussies.”
Never fear, Eileen. Questionable journalistic practices and office bullying accusations (she was verbally dismissive to that legal assistant) have never stopped anyone with a strong online following from making money online. But rather than setting up a Patreon, Eileen gets a surprise visit from her former editor, Stanley Cornik (Jeff Perry). He’s flown to New York to ask his former ace reporter to resume her duties at The Alaska Daily, a news outlet housed in Anchorage, Alaska. With a staff of 25 covering the largest state in America, there’s plenty of stories to be found north of Vancouver, he promises, and the paper (yes, they still print a physical paper) needs Eileen’s experience, instincts, and tenacity to keep the citizens of our country’s third least-populated state in the know.
Soon enough, she’s jogging alongside a giant moose and sharing drinks with a poet/pilot, all while learning which local customs are worth respecting, and which need to be overrun by her big city know-how. Anchorage (pop. 291,000) is Alaska’s largest city, but that doesn’t stop McCarthy & Co. from treating it like a small town — and treating its residents like dummies. One young reporter is so naive, she needs a pep talk to understand the basic purpose of her job. The second-most senior editor is similarly in the dark over why journalists and cops may not always see eye to eye. And as for the Alaskans who don’t work at the Daily, forget about it. Within the first two episodes, multiple adults confess to major felonies without so much as light pressure being applied — and confess on the record!
Such eagerness to be found out can be partly chalked up to the way procedurals work: Each week, there’s a mystery, and each week, the mystery is solved. (“Alaska, Daily” also has a long-term, serialized investigation focusing on a pattern of murdered Indigenous women.) Audiences can take comfort in getting firm answers to one plot while anticipating answers to the other plot in future episodes. It’s a tried-and-true formula, but one that’s given zero flair here. Everything you expect to happen in “Alaska Daily” will happen, and there’s too little humor, romance, and wit to turn a rote crime procedural into a comforting weekly watch. (Even the moose fits a pattern established long ago where our protagonist goes for their morning run, only to come face to face with a wild animal.)
To be clear, “Alaska Daily” could be a successful procedural. Not every Academy Award winning duo has to put out an HBO-style drama of the ilk typically chased by prestige talent like Swank and McCarthy. And after two episodes, the show could set itself on a better course. But what’s so dispiriting thus far, aside from its condescending attitude toward an imaginary “small town” (300,000 people isn’t small!), is that the series takes its procedural format for granted. Just two years ago, ABC released another crime procedural set in the Pacific Northwest, and “Stumptown” was really freaking good, in part, because its characters felt genuine, its humor was on point, and it didn’t act like just because it has a few appealing names attached people would care enough to keep tuning in.
“Stumptown” worked to earn a brief but beloved following, but “Alaska Daily” isn’t just a fish-out-of-water story spouting enough political buzzwords to feign significance. It’s lazy. And not even an Oscar (or two) means you can get away with not trying.
“Alaska Daily” premieres Thursday, October 6 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC. New episodes will premiere weekly and stream on Hulu.