The six-episode BBC show Press—which is on KCTS 9 on Sundays as part of PBS’s Masterpiece—covers all these types of stories and more. Set at two competing London newspapers, Press sets the struggling, social-justice-oriented Herald against the slick, sleazy Post.
It’s tempting to compare the latter paper to the Sun, but the makers of the show—writer/creator Mike Bartlett and director Tom Vaughn—say there’s no direct correlation between their two fictitious papers and any real-life Fleet Street analogues. Similarly, the politics of the day are utterly ignored, save for a slight tug-of-war between the liberal writers at the Herald and the jaundiced, somewhat unethical reporting style of the Post. Brexit, for example, is mercifully not mentioned at all.
The show is capital-T Television, in that it favors pot-boiling and methodical plotting in favor of realism. Crises accumulate like used coffee cups in the break room, and the reporters and editors are all quirky, quick-quipped, and superhumanly competent at their jobs. There’s something comforting and Aaron Sorkin-y about the way Press bubbles along, with a clutch of neatly interlocking characters all defined entirely by their work.
The two main figures are the Herald’s idealistic, hard-working deputy news editor Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley) and the glib, dirty-dealing editor-in-chief of the Post, Duncan Allen (Ben Chaplin). The supporting characters are equally strong, including Amina (Priyanga Burford), the Herald’s fiercely intelligent editor-in-chief, David Suchet as the mysterious owner of the Post, and Ellie Kendrick (Game of Thrones’s Meera!) as a plucky up-and-coming reporter. The one weak link is Paapa Essiedu as Ed, a new hire at the Post; his character’s moral ambiguity seems at odds with his seemingly conflicted inner emotional life.
The problem with Ed gets ironed out as the show goes along, and indeed all of Press improves as it progresses—always the sign of a good show. There’s a fair amount of table-setting to be done in the first two episodes, and some of the characters and relationships require a leap of faith to fully invest in. It’s not a perfect show by any means (it’s not even really a great one), but it is a very entertaining thing to watch indeed, as it's in the old-fashioned vein of pre-peak TV, in which a versatile setting and well-written characters provide never-ending fuel for all kinds of episodic situations. Chaplin, in particular, gets more interesting as the show goes on, once you’ve decided to buy into his character’s utter assholery. Other characters, like Amina, reveal new depths as things unfold; and unlike the reset factor that exists in so many weekly shows, the characters do evolve over time.
This first season (or “series," as they call it in the UK) ends somewhat abruptly on a cliffhanger, so one has to assume more Press is on the way from the BBC. It could be a year or two until it gets here, but they’ve laid more than enough groundwork to last several seasons. And although the show is not particularly edgy or fresh—it’s airing stateside as part of granny favorite Masterpiece, after all—it is fun, and fully addictive. And while the show offers a kind of heightened-reality, not-particularly-authentic version of working at a newspaper (huge problems are revealed, then immediately solved during bizarrely frequent—and meticulously scripted—editorial meetings; characters work through the night with alarming regularity), it does get enough little things right to make its significant leaps of faith forgivable.
And the show's imperfections reminded me of the frantic, slap-a-coat-of-paint-on-it nature of a real-life working newsroom. In fact, Press is a fertile enough milieu to make you wonder why we’ve hardly gotten any shows set at newspapers over the years. Magazines? Sure, plenty of shows about those. But newspapers? We’ve got Shrill, Lois and Clark, that one season of The Wire, and… that’s about it? Some American studio should steal the premise from Press and make its own show set at a newspaper—before it’s too late and all of the papers are gone from this earth.
Press shows on KCTS 9 on Sundays at 10 p.m.