The Hour: TV Review
The British series about journalism, corruption and social change remains compelling television. Yes, it's better than "The Newsroom."
When BBC America premiered The Hour and Luther last year, it was making a play to be as important as FX or AMC in the scripted world. Both shows were critically acclaimed, and as The Hour returns Wednesday for its second installment, here’s to BBC America continuing to expand its boundaries.
The Hour hit the scene as a kind of Brit, pre-Mad Men-era costume drama -- about a new nightly newscast in Britain and the journalists and anchor who made it go -- with superb writing and acting. It told a tight story, and writer Abi Morgan distinguished herself as a force.
The series regains its elegance, magnetism and well-paced story in season two. It’s probably too easy to say this is the show that HBO should have instead of The Newsroom, and certainly one that gets at journalism and journalists and their conflicts in a way that Newsroom does not (hint: more direct evidence via character, less preaching). That it’s set in the late-'50s in England adds a fresh coat of glamour and newness, sure, but the writing and acting are not only top notch, they make you wish Morgan would get a deal stateside to make something this compelling for us.
That said, if you didn’t watch the first season of The Hour, it’s more difficult to find your footing in season two. Not because it’s overly complicated (though it heads there) but because the pasts of the characters and how they’ve evolved speaks so much to their current state.
The series stars Romola Garai (The Crimson Petal and the White) as Bel, the smart and groundbreaking producer who launched the fictional newscast and made its host, Hector (Dominic West, The Wire) seem smarter than he was, though it’s not like he was completely unaware of how to report a story. But the real journalist in season one was Freddie (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall), an aggressive investigative reporter who was trying to make the most of England’s fresh loosening of news content by stirring things up. He certainly did in season one, getting fired even though he got the story. He returns in season two at the behest of Randal Brown (Peter Capaldi, The Thick of It), the new head of news, a stern and smart manager who knows all too well that Hector’s stardom as host of The Hour has gone to his head (and groin). Randal also has another reason for coming over from the Paris office: He’s still in love with Lix (Anna Chancellor), the veteran reporter at The Hour. As Hector falls more in love with fame -- and booze -- he’s less reliable, so Freddie is brought back to tighten up the newscast.
Part of that necessity is that The Hour has a rival at ITV, called Uncovered, a more aggressive, investigative outlet. Morgan sets all of this up nicely in a way that portrays all kinds of cultural shifts in England in 1957 (set one year later than the first season). Russia has Sputnik – sending everyone into a nuclear panic – immigration at home sparks racism (and fascism), journalists are tougher ferreting out corruption, and London’s underbelly mirrors a more violent culture.
This is all heady stuff, compelling on many levels and Garai, West, Whishaw, Chancellor and Capaldi are never less than tremendous. Morgan’s writing again stands out but perhaps never better than when she writes for Bel and Lix, two pioneering women who are complicated and fascinating.
It’s a welcome return for a show worth seeking out.