Finding yourself in Mad Men withdrawal this summer? Missing those nattily dressed men and women of a bygone modernist age, smoking and drinking their way through glamorous-seeming media jobs as dark clouds loom in their personal and professional lives?
Fret not. BBC America has come to the rescue, with a deluxe six-hour diversion set in the politically charged mid-1950s, titled The Hour — and few hours this summer have been so stimulating and absorbing. The problem here, typical of so much British TV, is there just aren't enough of these hours — though each one counts. And by the end of the twisty sixth hour, you'll be satisfied, if still craving more.
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Like Mad Men, this is sleek, sexy, smart, densely written and deliberately paced adult entertainment. The Hour delivers a slow but seductive burn, weaving Hitchcockian tension involving deadly international espionage into a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a pioneering live TV news program (think a primitive 60 Minutes), set in the BBC's own studios.
The cast is brilliant, forming a loose triangle that more than a few have already likened to an early version of Broadcast News. Hector (played by The Wire's Dominic West) is the slick, handsome, well-heeled anchor, his charisma barely masking his ambition. He begins a reckless flirtation with the show's young female producer Bel (Romola Garai, an unconventional knockout), risking both their careers. The third wheel is The Hour's rumpled hero: the brash upstart journalist Freddie (Ben Whishaw, wiry and fidgety and thoroughly disarming), who rebels against the fluff of then-prevalent newsreel journalism, rails against censorship and authority, and more selfishly, resents being denied Hector's spotlight. Freddie has a knack for getting under Hector's skin — partly because of his best-friendship with Bel and mostly because Hector sees in the unpolished Freddie the making of a better and more fearless journalist than he'll ever be. "How do you know exactly the right question to ask?" Hector wonders. "Because I'm not afraid of the answers," quips Freddie.
Ah, if Freddie only knew where some of those answers might lead. In a running joke, Freddie fancies himself the "James" to Bel's "Moneypenny" — a James Bond-ian reference that inadvertently strikes close to home, when Freddie finds himself going rogue to pursue a sinister conspiracy that ensnares a dear childhood friend. (Early on in Freddie's quest, a crossword provides a pivotal clue, evoking memories of last summer's short-lived Rubicon. This one's much more fun.) Adding to the intrigue: rumors of a mole in the workplace, and the ominous presence of a smarmy government watchdog who haunts the BBC offices, attempting to keep a tight rein on The Hour's journalistic activism in a time of war.
Set against a backdrop of political turmoil — the Suez Canal crisis in Egypt, the Soviet invasion of Budapest — The Hour works as both mystery and dark comedy of manners as the dramatic and romantic tensions escalate. It's thoroughly addictive, a tantalizing blend of cloak and dagger, deadlines and deceptions.
These are hours very well spent.