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‘The Hour’: Intrigue At The BBC

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 17, 2011

When The Hour — premiering tonight at 10:00 p.m. on BBC America — begins in 1956, BBC journalist Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, of Bright Star and Brideshead Revisited) is practicing in the mirror. What to say, how to be, how to look as he tries to land a job that will get him out of the doldrums of “newsreels,” where the BBC presents the world as full of nothing but good cheer and celebrity weddings. He wants to join a new hourlong program that will change the network’s image to something more alive, more edgy, more important.

It’s a good time for a drama set in the world of journalism, and this period approach is a clever way to get at it without falling into the same “print is dying, blogs are evil, Gawker is taking over” merry-go-round that too often dominates those discussions in popular culture. The message is subtle but unmistakable: There’s always been more than one way to cover the news, and journalists have always agonized over situations where they felt asked to do it the wrong way.

But quickly, the examination of journalism is joined by a personal story of Freddie and his dear friend Bel (Romola Garai). She seems to consider him a pal she’s forever getting out of various jams; he seems to pine for her with the unsettling knowledge that she doesn’t return his feelings. Bel works at the BBC as well, so they encounter each other professionally as well as personally — never an easy thing to manage, particularly when competition enters the picture.

Freddie thinks he might make a good on-air personality, but his sharp features and unpredictable temperament aren’t quite what a network looks for. They look for something more like Hector Madden, played by Dominic West. Madden is a square-faced, big-shouldered capital-N Newsreader, smooth with women and quite possibly more than a little squirrelly, but television gold.

But that’s not all.

Freddie wants to handle important stories and get to the bottom of what he cares about, and it looks like he just may stumble over an opportunity. A story begins to unfold that involves two men on a train, an unhappily engaged old friend of Freddie’s, and some strangely split seams he can’t make heads or tails of.

To say more about the mystery would be unfair, but The Hour brings a promising mix of newsroom drama, romantic subtext, and an underlying spy thriller that’s gotten to look awfully high stakes by the end of the first episode.

It’s fashionable and unavoidable at this point to compare period office dramas to Mad Men, and The Hour certainly has a similarly moody, smoky beauty, despite the newsroom being a more chaotic environment than a dignified ad agency where the men are forever sipping whiskey and settling onto sofas. The noir nods in The Hour are overt; the people who make this show understand that a quiet moment of investigation is to be accompanied by a spare combination of bass and saxophone, and that men in hats should adjust them now and then, simply because it’s eye-catching.

Other characters will take longer to develop, but for now, the show is anchored by the magnetic performance of Whishaw, who can seem fragile in some moments and coarse in others — sometimes too impulsive and sometimes too timid. He has wonderfully expressive eyes, the restlessness of a true reporter, and the cynicism of a man who has already come close to giving up on his own profession.

It’s only a six-episode piece, so you will likely not have to wait too long for a few answers, making this a good series for allegedly impatient Americans. BBC America is branding Wednesday nights at 10:00 as “Dramaville,” and once The Hour wraps up, the sequel to Luther (with Idris Elba) will kick off September 28. For now, this is definitely one to try. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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