BBC's The Hour : Stylish and Smart

Many TV critics apparently saw The Hour as the BBC's answer to Mad Men in terms of the vintage period drama aspect of the six-part series which wrapped last week. I felt the show to be more reminiscent of the short lived but spectacularly stylish Rubicon (AMC) with its espionage-based plot, mood lighting, and thoughtful editing. The good news is that The Hour will not suffer the same fate as Rubicon and in fact will return with a second season, according to writer/creator Abi Morgan. The show's name refers to a fictional Friday night news program on the BBC and the sturm und drang that gets it on the air each week -- live, of course, this being the mid-1950's.

From the cool blue checkerboard opening credit design and jazzy theme right on through to the final moments of last week's finale, this thriller became more and more addictive as the weeks went on. Ben Whishaw (who was magnificent as John Keats in Jane Campion's gorgeous and criminally under-appreciated film Bright Star) is the show's conscience as determined young television reporter, Freddie Lyon, who is doggedly pursuing the truth -- no matter what happens to him as a result. Romola Garai plays Bel Rowley, the beautiful and ambitious TV producer who is Freddie's best friend and, as producer of the new weekly show, his boss. The show is set in 1956, so it's rather unusual for a woman to hold such a coveted position in an old boys club like the Beeb.

Dominic West as Hector Madden plays a slick and handsome anchorman who can't resist anything in a skirt, including and especially Bel. His wife Marnie is played by Oona Chaplin, who is absolutely perfect in the role of a spoiled little rich girl who gets everything she wants, except for her husband to stop chasing other women. In last week's show Hector had spent a few days sleeping in the office to avoid her; undaunted and beautifully turned out, she shows up with a change of clothes for him. Hector is astounded that she has just appeared out of the blue. "Are you coming home?" she asks, her naked longing breaking through the good wife cover for just a few seconds, then threatens him with divorce over his affair with Bel. "There's only so much humiliation one girl can take." The previous week she confronted Bel in a spectacular scene that showed them both at the top of their game.

Also completely beyond the pale as a well drawn character is Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm, a seasoned war correspondent working on the team. She's acerbic and screamingly butch, puffing away constantly on a cigarette whenever there's no nitrate based film spools in the room, knocking back whiskey with the best of them to wind down after (and sometimes during) work. Julian Rhind-Tutt is stellar as Angus McCain, a press advisor for the current Prime Minister and the person who keeps a keen eye on BBC coverage to make sure it tows the party line. To my mind, eyeglasses haven't worked as well for a TV character since Uncle Junior on the Sopranos. Lisa Greenwood as flighty production secretary Sissy Cooper is noteworthy as well.

The show is just spot on, from the period fashions to the lighting, to the creak of the film cameras being positioned on the set. The arguments Bel has with her boss about not being able to debate or analyze the news and instead having to be a public relations mouthpiece for the government could, and probably are, being made today in newsrooms. The Hour is chockablock with great tossed off lines like this one from a production tech getting ready for the live broadcast: "Oy, Billy Wilder, where do ya want this?" and Lix's advice to a nervous Freddie: "You know they put donkeys in with racehorses to calm them down."

It will be quite interesting to see where these characters are when we rejoin them in the second season, as the finale ended with the show being shut down in mid-broadcast by government brass and Bel being given her walking papers, not to mention the solving of the murder mystery that had been going on all season amid other revelations. Before their final broadcast Bel says to her staff, "Good luck everyone. Let's make this an extraordinary show for extraordinary times." Amen to that, and I'm eagerly awaiting Season Two.