Happy New TV Year! With the brief holiday programming pause about to be over, it's already time to say goodbye to one of last year's better series: the evocative second season of BBC America's Golden Globe-nominated The Hour. A ticking-clock deadline fuels the suspense in Wednesday's gripping finale (9/8c). With showtime fast approaching for a new edition of the fictional '50s TV newsmagazine, The Hour's co-anchors find themselves embroiled in controversy and peril.
Handsome Hector (Dominic West) is front-page news, this time unhappily, his career threatened by tabloid headlines implicating him in a vice scandal. It's all a smokescreen, engineered to divert attention from the scoop The Hour staff is feverishly pursuing: a political conspiracy involving sexual blackmail, organized crime and government profiteering in the nuclear arms race. And Hector's brash co-star Freddie (Ben Whishaw) is so desperate to get that story on the air, he puts himself in mortal danger, proving his boss's assertion that "Madness is a prerequisite for any good journalist."
The Hour succeeds by being part Broadcast News soap opera, part Cold War-era thriller, with romantic and domestic subplots adding emotional stakes to the various intrigues. That's especially true for the news program's producer Bel (the alluring Romola Garai), fretting over Freddie's safety while fending off amorous advances from the same rival network exec who's been trying to lure Hector away from the BBC. "That's the problem with trouble — it always starts out as such fun," growls head of news Randall (Peter Capaldi), overseeing the chaos with reptilian inscrutability. He has a point. The more trouble our Hour protagonists get into, the more fun it is to watch.
And when it's time for The Hour to go live, you'll share their exhilarating rush. Job well done.
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SOAP OPRY: One of the fall's few new bright spots, ABC's Nashville, gives you a chance to catch up with the plot's various backstage twists and romantic turns — and, if we're lucky, some of the musical highlights (often the best part of the show) — in an hour recap special titled The Whole Story (10/9c). High points include the on- and off-stage rivalry of dueling divas Rayna Jaymes (the terrific Connie Britton) and the upstart Juliette Barnes (the surprising Hayden Panettiere), the earnest but palpable chemistry between young songwriter-singers Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio), and the career conflicts of veteran musician Deacon (Charles Esten in a career-high role). Feel free to fast-forward through anything involving Rayna's deadwood dullard of a husband (Eric Close) and his shady political campaign. Nashville isn't perfect, but it has promise, and I'm glad ABC is giving it a full season to work out the kinks. Like last season's Smash on NBC (which returns next month in improved form), it's at its best when it focuses on the business of show, not on the mopey personal subplots.
WHAT ELSE IS ON? PBS is hot for volcanoes. A special episode of Novatitled Doomsday Volcanoes serves as a curtain raiser for a new series about the ecology of these explosive structures, Life on Fire, which joins the "Exploration Wednesdays" lineup for six weeks. (Check tvguide.com listings for times.) Both of Wednesday's hours focus on Iceland, where the 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano paralyzed air travel, prompting experts to study when and where the next cataclysmic event may occur. ... With the start of American Idol still two weeks away, Fox turns to one of its reality place-holders, Howie Mandel's flash-mob stunt series Mobbed, with back-to-back episodes (8/7c). The first hour stages its elaborate production in honor of a fire chief. ... Speaking of fires, NBC's Chicago Fire (10/9c) is new, preceded by a first-run Law & Order: SVU (9/8c) focusing on Ice-T's Detective Fin Tutuola, who goes to bat for his ex-brother-in-law when he's arrested for assaulting a priest (True Blood's Denis O'Hare). The ensuing investigation unearths (what else, this being SVU) a church scandal.
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