BBC’s “The Hour” is not the British version of AMC’s “Mad Men.” Both are set in the mid-20th century — the former a take on a London TV newsroom in the ’50s and the latter a look at New York’s advertising world of the ’60s — but meticulous attention to period detail through costumes and set design isn’t enough to make them equal. “The Hour” isn’t as grand as “Mad Men,” with fewer existential breakdowns yet the same amount of alcohol abuse, but the show is strong in its own right. In truth, the series “The Hour” most should be compared to is HBO’s “The Newsroom,” in that it is everything that Aaron Sorkin’s modern TV newsroom drama should be: an ode to hard news-focused programs and journalists who fight to tell the truth that manages to steer clear of self-righteousness. Here are flawed newsmen and newswomen striving to tell a good story and tell it well, and both their stories and the larger narrative of the show avoid hitting viewers over the head with Very Important Messages. The news speaks for itself.
The second season premiered on BBC America on Wednesday, skipping ahead 9 months from where Season One left off and delivering at least one big kick in the stomach to fans (which won’t be spoiled here), all the while enticing us with hints and what is to come. With most cable dramas winding down for the year, such as “The Walking Dead,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Homeland,” this series is a great choice for compelling stories and solid acting to take us into the new year.
Here’s what you need to know about the series if you’re just starting or need a refresher for the new season.
Journalist friends Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) and Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), who between them have plenty of unspoken feelings, helped spearhead the creation of “The Hour,” the news show on BBC within the show, along with the help of anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West) in 1956. They’re out to make a difference in their world, but being in public broadcasting, the government likes to have a say in what the journalists are allowed to say. Ministry flunky Angus McCain (Julian Rhind-Tutt) always seems to be around to remind Hector and crew of the kind of trouble they’re about to get into.
Bel, as a young single female, likely isn’t a realistic character in this time setting as a producer, which Garai acknowledges, but she is balanced out with the presence of the older Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), who heads the foreign news desk and fights for her work to be covered. It’s the dynamic of Bel, Freddie and Hector that propels the show. That Bel is young and generally unaware of her beauty, and that Hector is dashing and unhappily married (to Marnie, played by Oona Chaplin), tells one all they need to know. Bel is ambitious but more pragmatic than Freddie, a hard-headed and obsessive reporter. Interestingly, Freddie and Hector combined make “The Newsroom’s” Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels); Freddie in his ability to aggravate and exasperate co-workers while still being right, and Hector in his turn as a national celebrity who spends almost as much time in the tabloids as on the air. Bel isn’t quite comparable with any of “The Newsroom’s” leading ladies; she doesn’t fall down a lot.
As Season Two opens in 1957, Bel has spent the past nine months trying to keep “The Hour” afloat — Freddie is gone, and so is the station’s former head of news. (I won’t spoil why on either account.) Hector is no help — he’s barely around, always off drinking at some night club — and the new head of news, Randall Brown (Peter Capaldi), is hesitant to heap praise on the show, knowing it could be stronger. In fact, the episode broadcast in the premiere features a segment on a dog sent to space, a far cry from the days the show covered the Suez crisis the previous year. Bel tells Brown (who happens to share a past with Lix) she needs help if she’s going to keep the show’s standards high as well as keep it in competition with ITV’s news program, and Brown is a step ahead of her: He’s brought Freddie back. This time, Freddie isn’t just a copywriter. He’s a co-host, a back-up for Hector who has been playing things fast and loose as his celebrity has grown. The team, while not perfect, is back together.
“The Hour” stands apart from many cable dramas in that it features at least one big mystery that unfolds throughout the seasons. Season One found Freddie investigating the death of a friend, a quest that took him into the world of Soviet spies and corrupt government officials. This season looks to focus primarily on local crime. Bel has been collecting information on the rise of the murder rate, especially in Soho, but she hasn’t had time to delve deeper. Luckily for her, Police Commander Laurence Stern (Peter Sullivan) is an old war buddy of Hector’s and, tired of seeing Prime Minister Harold Macmillan overlook the murder rate and the rise of organized crime for more global concerns of nuclear war and the Soviet threat, feeds Hector information that lands “The Hour” a great story. McCain, now Head of Press for Macmillan, isn’t amused.
Hector already is becoming too familiar with the world of vice; he frequents the Soho club El Paradis, run by Raphael Cilenti and catches the eye of one of the showgirls, Kiki Delaine (Hannah Tointon). A picture of Hector dining with Kiki (along with McCain and Cilenti) makes the front page of a London tabloid the next day. In the premiere, Kiki is beaten by an unseen man for unclear reasons, but it’s all part of the set-up. The news team isn’t just diving into the underworld to cover it; they’re going to find themselves involved in it. Racial tensions also are brewing, especially in Freddie’s neighborhood of Notting Hill. He invites the black boyfriend of his white co-worker, Sissy Cooper (Lisa Greenwood), to stay in his extra room, but it is made clear the move will not go unnoticed by those in the area who aren’t thrilled with the influx of immigrants, or anyone who isn’t white.
Perhaps it benefits “The Hour” that the news events (real or not) it covers took place 60-plus years ago. To bring up “The Newsroom” one last time, that show struggles with covering very recent events, such as the shooting of Sen. Gabrielle Giffords or the killing of Osama bin Laden, which just feels too easy. Declaring you would have done things differently in a past situation is fairly brazen, even more so if the situation is so fresh in viewers’ minds. Going further back in time may be safer, but “The Hour” isn’t out to preach or declare the news model it presents as the best possible option. The journalists are passionate about their work, but it never feels heavy-handed. In fact, “The Hour” is even truer to the world of journalists in depicting them as easily desensitized. Gallows humor reigns on newsrooms, as does the instinct to see a tragedy or other major event for the great news story it is.
This was played perfectly in the Season Two premiere when first Hector and then Bel reads a quote from the Prime Minister basically dismissing the crime rates as inconsequential in the grander scheme of impending Cold War. Neither is shocked; rather, both laugh with an almost giddy, we-just-struck-gold look of glee on their faces. It’s not that journalists don’t have feelings — most feel quite strongly about what they cover and how. It is that they see events in terms of opportunity. It’s part of the job. Music doesn’t swell in the background. There are no dramatic montages. Reporting is reporting. “The Newsroom” gets things right part of the time. “The Hour” never fails to deliver and is one of the better newsroom dramas of late. The news, and the politics of delivering the news, is front and center. The characters and their own dramas are along for the ride.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.