Memo to HBO's The Newsroom: This is how it's done.
In its second season, BBC America's The Hour (Wednesdays at 9/8c) is the very model of a smart, sleek, witty and sexy drama about the inner workings of a high-profile TV news operation. Set in the late '50s, but feeling quite contemporary in its depiction of media celebrity, with political and competitive pressures assailing journalistic ideals, this first-class entertainment avoids the pitfalls of preachiness and extreme silliness that often derailed Aaron Sorkin's TV comeback.
As The Hour leaps forward a year from the events of last season, there's a new head of news provoking conflict and change behind the scenes of the BBC's groundbreaking newsmgazine-style program (the fictional The Hour). Played with inscrutable chill by the great Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It), the new boss warns the overwhelmed producer Bel (Romola Garai) that the show lacks its former edge. He wants to feel again "the tingle from the top of the head to the balls of the feet."
The Hour provides just such a frisson as writer Abi Morgan spins a dazzling tale with the help of a glamorous cast, with the smashing Bel caught unawares when the boss brings back young crusader Freddie (Skyfall's Ben Whishaw) as co-anchor to light a fire under the show's cocky, self-immolating star, Hector (Dominic West). Hector's extracurricular and extramarital escapades in the Soho sexual and criminal underworld threaten scandal just when their show can least afford it.
"Heroes or villains, we're all somewhere in between," muses Lix (Anna Chancellor), the seasoned newswoman who looks upon the chaos with a survivor's unruffled calm. The Hour teems with flawed but driven professionals who, even at their worst, never come off as ridiculous as Newsroom's fools' gallery. The hours just fly by.
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ANGELS IN HYSTERIA: Because there wasn't enough mystical heebie-jeebie mayhem going on amid the gruesome antics of this year's American Horror Story (10/9c, FX), we can now add angels to the deeply silly religio-torture-porno mix. And Frances Conroy, the creepier of the two-in-one maids last season, gets to add another outrageous credit to her resumé as she arrives on the scene, black wings flapping like an apparition from Angels in America (although she looks more like the ghostly Ethel Rosenberg character). I'll leave it to you to discover her true purpose at the Briarcliffe asylum, but the violent twists seem even more random than usual. Best moments: anything involving the bravura Lily Rabe as the possessed Sister Mary Eunice, who's upstaging even Jessica Lange these days when it comes to memorable mad scenes. The worst: anything involving the demented Norman Bates wannabe Dr. Bloody Face (Zachary Quinto), who gets to deliver this howler to a potential victim: "I can either cut your throat or I can strangle you. I don't believe in guns." At times this whole show feels like one long Hail Mary. Or should that be: Hell, Mary!
WHAT ELSE IS ON: I usually like to wait at least until December to watch the timeless A Charlie Brown Christmas (8/7c, ABC) and savor that great Vince Guaraldi score, but what the heck. As is ABC's custom, the special is stretched out to fill an hour, this year including the animated short Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa. ... More yuletide cheer on NBC with the annual Christmas in Rockefeller Center tree-lighting special (8/7c), featuring Tony Bennett, Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, the Rockettes from nearby Radio City, The Voice's Cee Lo Green and Chris Mann, among others. Some affiliates will start airing the festivities an hour earlier. ... Comic geek alert: The CW's Arrow (8/7c) welcomes The Huntress to Starling City, but will her mission of vengeance clash with Oliver Queen's? ... Who saw Lisa Whelchel emerging as one of this season's more intriguingly conflicted players on Survivor: Philippines (CBS, 8/7c)? This week, as the rest of the tribe deals with the annual food auction, she's torn between loyalty and strategy in forging her next alliance. ... Finally! ABC's Nashville (10/9c) at long last forces dueling country divas Rayna and Juliette to sing together, and it's about time. We've been waiting so long for those sparks to fly again between Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere, we almost wrote a song about it. ... If you missed Betty White doing the voice of Mrs. Claus earlier in the evening on the Prep & Landing special, you can catch her on the fourth-season premiere of TV Land's Hot in Cleveland (10/9c), where she spars with Regis Philbin while Valerie Bertinelli goes to work for Heather Locklear. That ought to raise some viewers' temperature. ... With her lousy NBC sitcom running on fumes, Whitney Cummings wisely falls back on her stand-up strengths with a new comedic talk-show on E!: Love You, Mean It With Whitney Cummings (10:30/9:30c), promising topical humor, field pieces and celebrity guests. Hey, it can't be worse than what Russell Brand is doing over on FX, can it?
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Memo to HBO's The Newsroom: This is how it's done.
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