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Seitz on Season Two of BBC’s The Hour: A Classy British Potboiler With Oh-So-Attractive People

The second season of the excellent drama The Hour gives you more of the same, but different. The first couple of episodes sent out for review reminded me of Mad Men, season two, which delved more deeply into character psychology and wallowed in period atmosphere and brazenly filmic images. Despite its newfound cinematic muscle, however, the show is still focused on three things, all of which may prove to be interrelated as season two unfolds.

First, The Hour is about news: the hard work that goes into it, and the behind-the-scenes forces that shape, skew, and suppress it. Season two serves up a new crime-driven mystery and a new set of villains, foils, and colorful supporting players for our BBC scoop-hounds to joust with. Set nine months after the nail-biting climax of season one, in which an espionage-tinged murder mystery unfolded during the thick of the Suez Canal crisis, the tale reunites the show’s main players: workaholic producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai); her chief news reader and ex-lover Hector Madden (Dominic West); and the arrogant but supremely talented reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), who left “The Hour” after last season’s finale, wandered the globe building his résumé, and has rejoined the show as an on-camera correspondent and Hector’s de facto rival. (He has a scruffy boho beard that looks great on him, plus a vastly more important addition to his life that I’d rather not spoil here.) As before, the series is fascinated by the details of TV news gathering and editorial decision-making in the black-and-white era. More so than The Newsroom, which isn’t anywhere near as industry-savvy as it wants viewers to think, this show gets into the mundane details of reporting a story, even as it revels in the skill, nerve and ego of its reporters.

Second, The Hour is about social change in postwar Britain, and there’s plenty to chronicle. A wave of violent crime has terrified Londoners. The incoming deputy police commissioner Laurence Stern (Peter Sullivan), an old war buddy of Hector’s, is determined to clean up “the stench of decay and decline” in the streets, and feeds Hector secret documents proving that his boss is so obsessed with preparing England for nuclear war that he doesn’t mind if the country slides into a toxic stew of pornography, prostitution and random street violence. On the demographic end of things, a recent influx of foreigners, including people of color, has roused racist and fascist tendencies in the white population. The first couple of episodes are filled with images of discrimination and intimations of racist violence. Freddie, who has a nose for spectacle as well as news, realizes that this is not just an important story but a potentially thrilling one, and sets about framing the conflict for live TV. (Freddie’s masterstroke of showmanship in the second episode strikes me as an anachronistic misstep — it’s as if he accidentally invented the daytime talk show — but if I’m wrong about that, I’m sure British readers of a certain age will set me straight.) These two strands, fear of crime and social decay, and fear of demographic change, will probably intertwine in future episodes, because that’s how The Hour rolls. 

There are other fascinating subjects bouncing around inside the main plots. We learn about the loosening of sexual mores circa 1957 thanks to Hector, a nightclub crawler, problem drinker, and tabloid fixture. His infidelities humiliate his wife Marnie (Oona Chaplin) and eventually get him into deep legal as well as PR trouble. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that this plotline has a touch of film noir, puts Hector in a more vulnerable position than we’ve ever seen — helpless, practically — and gives West’s red meat machismo and Cheshire cat grin a pitiful, at times tragic aura. From the opening moments of tonight’s pilot, we know the character is headed for a fall, because he’s on top of the world, charming a dancer/actress/whatever named Kiki Delane (Hannah Tointon) into staying overnight in a hotel suite and gliding into glitzy hot spots with flashbulbs popping around him. The writers prick Hector’s puffed-up ego by positioning Freddie as his rival and possible usurper, and establishing that Bel is so tired of his public misbehavior and lax work habits that she can no longer come to his defense.

Not that Bel has the time. The Hour is slipping in the ratings, thanks to the nine-month departure of Freddie — the show’s most valuable idea man — and the popularity of “Uncovered,” a new program on rival network ITV that Bel accuses of ripping off “The Hour.” She believes her show could beat the competition if it had more resources. But her new boss Randall Brown (Peter Capaldi) believes that lack of inspiration is the real problem. Less than a year ago, he tells her, “one could feel the tingle, feel the tick” while watching “The Hour.” That’s why he hired Freddie away from a plum editing job in Paris and brought him back on set: to raise the level of everyone else’s game, including his.

Randall Brown, by the way, is such a great character, and Capaldi such a superb actor, that superlatives can’t do either of them justice. This bespectacled, deadly serious fellow is nearly the opposite of Capaldi’s profane truth-teller from The Thick of It and In the Loop: a quietly brilliant leader who roots around inside Bel, Hector, and Freddie’s psyches until he figures out which buttons to push to spur them to do their best work. There’s also a dollop of sexual tension between him and the steel-spined foreign desk editor Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), so we’ll probably see cracks in his armor soon.

More than anything else, though, The Hour has the glamour of an imagined past — the same fantasy fuel that powers so many period TV dramas, including Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. Sandra Golbacher, the director of tonight’s episode, creates many ostentatiously lyrical moments, prowling the camera along the façade of a nightclub, focusing on whiskey tumblers, cigarette smoke, and slow-motion-writhing dancers. Certain sequences reminded me of Wong Kar-Wai’s romantic drama In the Mood for Love, a film that made people walking past each other in a stairwell seem unbearably sexy.

Don’t scrutinize the plot too closely, as it can’t withstand any plausibility test. There are no coincidences in the first couple of episodes as silly as Freddie just happening to be present during two violent suicides during season one, but there are touches that come close. And a couple of the major new characters are too transparently “bad” for my taste — particularly deputy commissioner Stern, a tight-ass whose name guarantees future revelations of hypocrisy and perversion.

But then, for all its fascination with journalistic ethics, political gamesmanship, and the anxiety of Great Britain during empire’s twilight, The Hour has never pretended to be anything other than a very classy potboiler filled with attractive people, one that puts its heroes into predicaments that wouldn’t be out of place in a silent film while sneaking social and historical commentary into the margins. That’s the credo of entertainment as well as journalism, though: If it bleeds, it leads.

Photo: Laurie Sparham/BBC