Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Hour ticks away

     It's 1956 when BBC America's The Hour begins. Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, Criminal Justice, Layer Cake) and Bel Rowley (Romola Garai, The Crimson Petal and the White) are growing more and more frustrated with their job working on inane newsreels for BBC. A glimmer of hope shines, as they interview with Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser, Primeval), who is putting together a more serious news program called The Hour. Bel is awarded the producer role, and Freddie is forced to settle, after much consideration, with riding the Home Affairs desk. But a chance encounter with an old friend (Vanessa Kirby, Love/Loss) draws Freddie into a much bigger story.

     It's hard not to compare The Hour to Mad Men, as many have done, because of the time period. Even though The Hour takes place in 1956, it feels more like the 1960s, and some mistakes, such as 1960s telephones, contribute to that. Yet, the tone is slower and darker, the people less defined, and the action more plot-driven than character-driven, so it's certainly not a copy. Overall, the first hour is intriguing, but pacing needs to be ratcheted up, and viewers must be made to care about the characters more, if the series wants to truly succeed.

     There's nothing wrong with a conspiracy plot that will span the season, and Freddie is drawn into the plot by his friend. The first clue, involving an academic killed by a mysterious man (Burn Gorman, Torchwood) whom the academic sought to kill is pretty interesting. But Freddie, the main character in solving the plot, is abrasive and stubborn, which make him a little hard to like. He almost passes up a job at The Hour just because he can't take the position he wants, in front of the camera. Never mind; he will get to keep working with Bel, whom he adores, and have the freedom to pursue the types of scoops he likes.

     Bel is a much better character. She is kind and tough, though the series doesn't focus on how unusual it is for a woman to rise to such a high ranking position in a 1950s newsroom. Was it that different in England than in the states? Anyway, it's a bit refreshing, though odd, that in 1956 Bel is treated just like any other professional, other than the fact that she isn't allowed to gather in the brandy room after lunch. The impression is quickly given that Bel can handle her job, and will prove herself without making unnecessary waves.

     Joining Bel and Freddie is Hector Madden (Dominic West, The Wire, 300), a playful anchor. Hector's first appearance on screen is loathsome in the way that he treats Bel, but once viewers realize he is simply messing with her, it's hard not to be won over. He seems like a decent human being, if a bit ornery. He has the right look for the role, and should provide a good third angle in the Bel/Freddie love triangle. Yes, Bel has a boring banker boyfriend, but only Freddie and Hector seem to actually engage her in a way that she likes. She will dump her beau soon enough.

     With a great cast, it is up to the writers to make The Hour worth watching. The seeds are planted for a very interesting, somewhat original show. But the plant is far from sprouted.

     Watch The Hour Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.

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     Please click here to watch streaming episodes or preorder The Hour on Blu-ray and DVD.

Article first published as TV Review: The Hour - "Pilot" on Blogcritics.

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