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The Hour: TV Review

"The Hour"
BBC America

The Bottom Line

"The Hour" hooks viewers not just with the compelling spy saga but by a superbly nuanced set of personal relationships among the characters as well. And the 1956 set piece design doesn’t hurt, either.

Premieres

Wednesday, Aug. 17 at 10 p.m. (BBC America)

Cast

Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West

Executive producers

Jane Featherstone, Abi Morgan, Lucy Richer, Derek Wax

Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West star in the 1950s-set spy thriller.

Nobody does period pieces quite like the Brits, and you really have to tip your hat to them for The Hour, a 1950s-set spy thriller that will make you want to steal all the era-specific design gems you see, like clocks and exit signs. And, oh yeah, it’s a pretty great story.

BBC America is using the languid gorgeousness and intriguing spy tale of Hour to kick off what it calls Dramaville (“The Home for Groundbreaking British Drama”), hosted by actor Idris Elba in a kind of reverse-engineered Masterpiece Theatre.

Hour is an excellent showcase, even if it requires fairly deep Anglophilia. It’s set in 1956 in the world of television journalism. We meet Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a whip-smart and cynical young producer of nearly static newsreels that, he argues correctly, do not accurately portray what’s going on in the world or in England. His fellow reporter Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is equally bored and put off by the situation, but she’s also a lot more diplomatic than Freddie, whose opinions fly fast and furiously. That’s why Bel, not Freddie, is tapped as producer of the potentially exciting new weekly series The Hour, which will include harder-hitting reports and international news and in-studio interviews.

Freddie begrudgingly accepts Bel’s hiring, but he’s perhaps more hurt that she (and the BBC) didn’t consider him as host, a job he no doubt believes he should have based on his journalistic tenacity but also, secretly, his desire to use it as a soap box.

Instead, the job goes to the dashing Hector Madden (Dominic West, whose appearance here, coupled with Elba’s hosting duties, should appease fans of The Wire). Madden is overprivileged but underqualified and sets Freddie off on an endless rant. The married Madden’s flirtations with Bel, whom Freddie is clearly in love with, just make matters worse.

Hour might have been a nice set-piece drama with only those elements to move around, but the beauty in the series is that by way of an old acquaintance, Freddie stumbles on both a murder mystery and a spy saga at the same time. Creator Abi Morgan (Sex Traffic, White Girl) deftly handles both strands of the story and should be commended for not letting the enigmatic cloak and dagger elements get in the way of a complicated three-way look at love, longing and mistaken choices. She deserves credit for making Freddie at once outstandingly grating and likable while keeping the deep friendship between him and Bel believable yet mysteriously out of sync. They’re perfect for each other — but then not.

Hour is an absorbing series that makes you want the next installment immediately even as it takes its time (in that British way) telling the story. Having seen the first three (of six) episodes, the series has very few missteps (a fight sequence in the third episode with the impossibly thin Whishaw is a bit of a stretch).

But there’s so much to love in Hour — particularly the smart dialogue — that nitpicking can’t derail any of it. There’s a wonderful sense that the BBC is full of spies, and that every action by every character is suspicious. Morgan has doled out just enough story and character on both the spy and workplace arcs that each development, even with minor characters, acts like a sharp hook.

Whishaw and Garai turn in exceptional performances, and West (whose story evolves slower but no doubt picks up steam in the final three episodes) nails the difficult task of playing someone who hasn’t earned his role while being reminded of it constantly (by Freddie). And yet, you can’t help but think there’s a bait and switch afoot which, again, creates a real desire to see each subsequent episode.

Beyond that, there’s no getting past the allure of the look of the show — the Hour has the same period-piece fetishism that served Mad Men so well. All told, BBC America is off to a fine start with The Hour.

Email Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine