Aug 29, 2011

TV Review: The Hour (BBC America)

Why is The Hour, the new BBC mini-series currently running on BBC America (and just finished up across the pond on BBC Two), so amazing?  When the first trailer came out for it this summer, the best thing people seemed to say about it was that it looked derivative of great shows and that guy from The Wire was in it (and he was British). And, honestly, both of those things are true.  However, that doesn’t really paint the whole brilliant picture.

Bel and Freddie, sorting through clues to find the story.
On the surface, The Hour does something that many new shows are trying to accomplish this fall. Cribbing off the success of Mad Men, 50s and early 60s nostalgia has come back in a big way. However, the new slate of shows exploring this era have all added a twist. It
can’t simply be about the era and the drama inherent in all human life. Oh, heavens, no. ABC’s Pan Am is Mad Men + spies. NBC’s The Playboy Club is Mad Men + murder and intrigue.  In network television, character-based drama is not the grease that calms the squeaky wheel. There is Sweeps week to consider, after all.

And The Hour is very much a part of that model. The show is about the creation of a brand new news program on the BBC, The Hour. Over the course of six episodes (no spoilers, I promise), the reporters are all responding to and reporting on two very different news stories – the mysteries surrounding debutante Ruth Elms and the Suez Crisis. Also, the news program has to contend with over-reaching government in every way imaginable. Then, for good measure, spies, Soviets, murder, and suicide are thrown in. It’s an action thriller, albeit a slow-paced one. It is Mad Men-esque only in that many of the events in the story are shaped by historical events (Men has the JFK assassination, The Hour has the Suez Canal). However, this is common of period dramas in general and in BBC drama miniseries in particular (Downton Abbey follows the events of a family after the sinking of the Titanic, etc.). 

The Hour surpasses other shows taking place in the 50s by creating wonderful and well-crafted character moments within the crazy spy stuff. There are class struggles, love quadrangles, closeted gay maybe-murderers and more all wrapped up in some very real stories. The drama doesn't come simply from answering the question of who did it. It's more interested in the why. 

At the core of this is Freddie Lyon, played brilliantly by the delightfully concave-chested Ben Whishaw (Bright Star).  He is both world-weary and hopelessly naive, which is born of the combination of his lack of knowledge/loathing of the upper class and his extensive news experience. When he interacts with spies or goes on hunts for truth, it still feels real because he is a character that is so grounded in reality, from his news-reporterly appearance (very de rigueur) and his little physical tics to his acumen in finding the story, which is often a result of following his emotions. He’s on the story, searching for truth and justice. He's also clumsily charming to boot:

The real standout performance, however, comes from Romola Garai (Atonement) as Bel Rowley, the female producer of The Hour who has everything to prove and everything to lose. Garai is just amazing. On the Mad Men scale, Bel is equal parts Joan and Peggy – sassy, opinionated, smart, and vulnerable – a beautiful mess of emotions. In lesser hands, the character could come off as too-perfect and too inhuman for audiences to feel empathetic. The writers and Garai have instead made the imperfections her greatest force, using her familial love of Freddie, the disappointment in her mother, her somewhat questionable judgment, and her overall kindness to give her strength. At one point, she asks her mother how to live a life where nothing matters, because in Bel’s world everything has meaning, everything stings, everything wounds. Like Freddie, she’s an emotional peach.

Oh, and the third lead, Dominic West (The Wire), is also very good. He’s polished and debonair and sad.

There are some problems with the series. In terms of production value, British television still hasn’t caught up to American television in their use of color or vibrancy. While dramas like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire feel very filmic, the sets and lighting of The Hour feel more like The West Wing (which it’s more like than Mad Men, anyway). Also, it can be a bit drippy emotionally, especially the preponderance of sideways glances and mooning in the fourth and fifth episodes (when the show takes a little breather before the home stretch). And, like many British dramas, the show has the problem of seeming too closed-ended and rushed at the end, since a second series is never a guarantee. The balance of character-drama and plot-drama shifts dramatically in the last ten minutes of the show.

Still, watch The Hour.  The spy stuff is great, the character stuff is better.

Series Grade: A-
The Hour airs Wednesdays at 10p EST on BBC America
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