BBC America’s The Hour rises above the competition

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

BBC America’s answer to the sexy retro workplace drama turned in a solid, if all-too-brief, freshman season, leaving this viewer tantalized by the last-minute revelations and dearly hoping for more.  Soon.  The fact that I watched all six episodes in a single week (thanks to Entertainment on Demand’s lineup of primetime BBC America) should tell you something.

Set in turbulent, Cold War 1956, The Hour centers on the eponymous, 60 Minutes-style news program in its fledgling days.  Helmed by young producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai, I Capture the Castle, Amazing Grace) and fronted by dashing pretty boy Hector Madden (Dominic West, The Wire, 300), the program and its staff of ambitious journalists face world-changing foreign crises, censorship laws that hamstring their ability to report on current events, MI6 secret service oversight, and rumors of a Soviet mole on their staff.  Subplots involve the suspicious death of a debutante, investigated by frenetic and brilliant head writer/reporter Freddy Lyon, played with earnest intensity by Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Layer Cake); as well as the obligatory love affair–this one between Rowley and Madden.  It’s a heady time for young TV news, and The Hour captures it beautifully, from the mixture of cutting edge and slightly dingy art direction of their Lime Street studio, to the adrenaline-fueled performances of all the leads, as they chase down stories and rush to meet deadlines while pushing the boundaries of their new profession.

The fictional storylines are compelling, but it’s in dramatizing the real historical news that The Hour really shines.  Season One is brilliantly set during what must have been one of the most dramatic weeks in post-war history, late October 1956, when the Hungarian uprising and the Suez Crisis occurred back to back.  The Hour does a splendid job of dramatizing the counterpoint of those events, as well as the concurrent American presidential election (I suppose it won’t spoil anything to say that Eisenhower wins), to capture a moment in history with both endless depths to mine for story ideas, as well as casting an intriguing mirror on our evolving notion of the news media.

In a TV season that also includes embarrassing Mad Men lookalikes Pan Am and The House Bunny, what The Hour delivers best might be its focus on strong female characters.  From successful professionals Rowley and Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor, Law & Order: UK, MI-5) to doomed socialite Ruth Elms (newcomer Vanessa Kirby), the women of The Hour are complex, talented, and hold their own in the macho world of foreign correspondents and British political posturing.  But the standout performance for me was actually by Oona Chaplin (yes, that Chaplin), in the role of Marnie Madden, Hector’s long-suffering wife.  Marnie’s cool determination to maintain her upbeat composure in the face of tense international drama and humiliating personal scandal proves that her sweet mask is anything but naiveté.  Her composure wavers only once, in a deliberate confrontation with Bel, and perhaps only Bel is surprised when Marnie calmly walks out the victor.  Awards committees, take note.

I have more I’d like to say–like how nice it was to see original Torchwood co-star Burn Gorman in another role (even disappointingly cut short in episode 3 as it was!), or how the last 30 minutes of the finale took everything we thought we knew and added breathtaking layers of complexity to key characters Hector, Freddy, and… well, I won’t say.  If I have one major complaint, it’s that the season was so short!  I’m afraid it will get lost among its main competition, and that is a real shame.  Happily, it’s been reported a Series Two is on the way, though no word yet on the air date.

Catch this On Demand while it lasts, download episodes from I Tunes, or order the DVD from BBC America.

One comment

  1. This is an absolutely brilliant review of an extremely compelling show.

    Kudos to Ms. Bunce for distilling the essence of a refreshingly creative program that also adheres to historical honesty…at least in the episodes I’ve watched.

    I have yet to see the season finale, but am anxious to turn on my DVD to catch the recording.

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