Minidrama ‘The Hour’ is spot-on
You’ve got to love the meme-verse, that electronic space where misinformation snowballs into information. For very slight reasons, the terrific new BBC America miniseries “The Hour’’ is being compared to “Mad Men.’’ So now I will push the snowball forward by discounting the comparison. Yes, they’re both pre-1970s period pieces in which women are mistreated and everyone shamelessly sucks down cigarettes. Otherwise, they’re completely different beasts.
“The Hour’’ is set in 1956 England, behind the scenes of a news program called “The Hour.’’ The six-parter, beginning tonight at 10, is a tonal hybrid - a romantic comedy, a political conspiracy drama, and a vivid portrait of the early days of TV journalism, when TV executives first realized you couldn’t break big stories in newsreels or on nightly newscasts. Thanks to the firm hand of screenwriter Abi Morgan, these three genres dance around one another beautifully across the series, with background shades of “Broadcast News’’ as well as some of the 1970s conspiracy movies.
Set in 1960s New York, “Mad Men’’ is a full-on melodrama, with cultural and psychological import and a literary script that justifies its gradual pace. “The Hour,’’ however, is late-summer entertainment that jumps forward at a peppy pace. It offers amusement and a tad of suspense, but little to ponder over the long run.
Journalist Freddie Lyon, played with abrasive cynicism by Ben Whishaw, has a boyish face, but he’s a fierce reporter fed up with stories about debutantes. He is like the Albert Brooks character in “Broadcast News,’’ the irritable guy who wants to dig beneath the surface of stories, including the Suez Crisis that’s emerging, never caring that he may be burning bridges across town. He’s in love with Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), the new producer of “The Hour,’’ but they behave like work spouses, always bantering and never quite broaching the subject of romance.
Bel is focused, and her ego is solid, and she doesn’t bother taking the bait when men, most notably a slithery government publicist, discount her for being a woman. But she’s more vulnerable when the new face of “The Hour,’’ the handsome Hector Madden (Dominic West, from “The Wire’’), hits on her. He is William Hurt from “Broadcast News,’’ the symbol of the vapid pretty face, the less emotionally threatening if less satisfying option for Bel.
Freddie begins to piece together an investigation after an academic has been murdered in the subway and one of Freddie’s old friends is in mortal trouble - “They’ll kill me if they know I’m talking to you,’’ she tells Freddie. Meanwhile, someone may be sending high-stakes political clues via a newspaper crossword puzzle. But the Freddie-Bel-Hector romantic triangle remains the core of “The Hour,’’ most clearly during a weekend shooting party at a mansion in episode 3. Freddie bristles at the sight of Hector and at Bel’s attraction to such a lug, while Hector blindly persists in trying to gain Freddie’s respect.
The tension between Freddie and Hector is nothing new in newspaper and TV stories, of course. It’s the tension between the reporter and the news anchor, or the tension between the reporter and the Web aggregator: One does the hard work and the other gets the attention for it. It’s a cliche - Freddie is the substance, Hector is the flash - and yet “The Hour’’ makes it worth reliving.
The performances are irresistible, particularly Whishaw, who makes the familiar character of the annoying scrappy reporter his own. He’s a pushy guy, except when it comes to love. Garai was a bouncy, appealing lead in the 2009 PBS “Masterpiece’’ adaptation of “Emma,’’ and here she is also a plus. She projects intelligence, despite Bel’s occasional bad decisions. And West is just right - never so fickle as to be weightless, and sympathetic in his strong desire to win Bel. You do want him to find happiness - but somewhere else.