It’s reasonably obvious from just the first minute of Press what kind of Serious British Drama this is going to be. It has the theatrical credentials of the writer Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster, King Charles III), whose plays and TV dramas tend to be wry, timely autopsies of British institutions. It has oppositional central characters: the satanically charismatic tabloid editor Duncan Allen (played by Ben Chaplin) and the pious, self-sacrificing lefty reporter Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley), whose attachment to burgundy turtlenecks is her most unpredictable quality. There are characters clearly based on real people, like a trollish, gleefully offensive columnist named Wendy Bolt, and a prominent female politician caught up in a drugs scandal. There are face-offs with the prime minister. There are more charged debates about the rot in the fabric of modern Britain and the role of the individual in society than in the third act of a David Hare play.
And yet Press—which is airing weekly on PBS after debuting on the BBC last year—can be enthralling. Partly, this is a work finding its target audience of someone personally invested in the future of media. If you’re not at least casually curious about the ideological and ethical fault lines of the scurrilous British news industry, needless to say, this might not be the show for you. Moreover, Bartlett, who is just 39, seems to have done his research in a newsroom from 1999, where journalists obsess over print layouts and shoe-leather reporting but never mindlessly scroll Twitter or go into fugue states gazing at Chartbeat. Still, with his two central characters, Bartlett sets up a conflict that demands an answer—what is journalism for?—while also letting his audience voyeuristically experience the thrill of the chase.