I’m already annoyed with the irritating comparisons many have made about the superficial similarities between “The Hour” (which begins tonight on BBCA) and “Mad Men.” Like “Mad Men,” “The Hour” is a period piece set in a workplace that features plenty of highballs and cigarettes, and while the set and costume design on both shows is remarkable, the comparisons aren’t completely fair. Beneath the slow-burning drama and Matthew Weiner’s social exploration of the 1960s, “Mad Men” is — at its heart — a sudsy soap opera about vice and promiscuity. “The Hour,” set in a BBC newsroom in the mid-1950s, has a little of that, but it is more a layered, Hitchcockian mystery. It takes a more measured and focused look at its workplace, exploring the social and political changes brought about by televised news and, in small ways, manages to tie it into our modern news culture.
Of course, for the “Mad Men” fans, there is also vice and promiscuity.
The pilot episode is also perhaps the finest hour of television this year, perfectly introducing its characters, establishing themes, and setting up the running story-line for the six-part series. At its center is Freddie (Ben Wishaw), wiry and disheveled, an upstart journalist and producer of “The Hour” more obsessed with finding and reporting the story than ladder climbing. Opposite Freddie is Hector (Dominic West, McNulty from “The Wire”), the rakishly charming anchor of “The Hour” whose ambitions outweigh his talent. Hector has a great face for television, but what he’s missing are the journalistic instincts of Freddie, a constant source of tension between the two.
The other source of tension between the two is Bel Rowley, “The Hour’s” producer, a blond hourglass, beautiful in the Hendricksian sense. Bel and Freddie have risen the ranks together, but Bel’s ambition and pragmatism have elevated her above Freddie, whose distrust of authority has held him back. Freddie is in love with Bel, but she is infatuated with Hector, who is married and a member of a high-class family that afforded him his position as anchor on “The Hour.”
Like another six-part BBC series, “The Shadow Line,” “The Hour” takes a paranoid and distrustful look at its own institutions of authority (seriously, what is up, UK?). In the midst of the relationship drama, there’s a gripping murder mystery. The pilot episode sees the deaths of two people under unusual circumstances, and Freddie is determined to tie the two to a government conspiracy, one that perhaps implicates MI6 and the BBC. Thomas Kish (Burn Gorman, “Torchwood”) seems to represent the intersecting point of the conspiracy, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s part of it or fighting against it. Either way, he’s creepy.
There’s another layer at play, too, and that is the developing conflict between Israel, England and Egypt, and what would eventually lead to the Suez Crisis of 1956. That may or may not play into the over-arcing murder mystery, but it is used as the central news story at play in “The Hour.” The breaking story allows us to see the backroom politics between the journalists, the BBC, and the government, and the power struggle that takes place to determine how the story is reported.
“The Hour,” like “Mad Men,” is a slow burn, but in just six episodes, pulls in more social, cultural and political threads than a full season of “Mad Men.” That’s not to say it’s a better show, but it is perhaps more dense and ambitious than Weiner’s program. But it’s also aligned with its BBC cousins, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “State of Play,” in that it’s as interested in exploring the relationships between authoritarian institutions as it is in exploring sexual ones. It’s a fantastic show, brilliantly acted, deftly written, and easily the summer’s next best thing to “Breaking Bad.”