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Powerful <em>Hour</em>

(BBC America)


Powerful Hour

New BBC America show offers an engrossing story of the birth of broadcast journalism

Thanks to the critical success of AMC's Mad Men, retro rage is setting in among the networks with ABC and NBC both offering highly sartorial 1960s-era dramas this fall. Given the premises of the two shows (one follows the intrigues of pilots and stewardesses, the other of waitresses at a Playboy Club) it's unlikely either will be as engrossing as BBC America's The Hour, a UK hit that follows a group of broadcasters at a weekly news program in 1956.

Aside from the fedoras and constant smoking, The Hour, which premiered on Aug. 17, shares little in common with the trend-making show that may have, aesthetically at least, inspired it. Unlike Mad Men, the show's historical setting provides more than an avenue for exploring shifting social mores. Women's roles and prevailing attitudes toward sexual morality play a role, but the impact of technological and geopolitical changes is more pressing.

Here we're drawn into the genesis of television journalism, observing what the new medium means both to the journalists asking the questions and the subjects answering them. With the growing popularity of broadcast news, politicians and public figures must learn to navigate a world of short-form interviews and sound bites. Reporters must try to convey the full breadth of a story in a three-minute voice over.

Standing in the gap between the old and new press is Freddie Lyon (Ben Wishaw)-a reporter so earnest, he talks about the "mechanics of bearing witness" without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Freddie is so passionate about his field, his best friend and colleague Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) counsels him to tone down his zeal before a job interview with the BBC's new weekly investigative news program, The Hour.

Freddie fails to reign in his emotions and loses out on the two positions he wanted-producer and anchor. Instead, the first job goes to Bel and the second goes to the good-looking, well-connected, but seemingly empty-headed former sports reporter Hector Madden (Dominic West.) Bel, however, recognizes that few reporters possess Freddie's tenacity and nose for a story, so in her first act as producer she fights for him and manages to get him on the team in a diminished role.

Perhaps it goes without saying that a love triangle à la Broadcast News develops between Freddie, Bel, and married lothario Hector, but those soap bubbles are a mere distraction from the real drama. In between arguing the ethics of covering the Suez crisis and pushing back against government liaisons trying to control the show, Freddie finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy of Kennedy assassination proportions.

Notwithstanding a few disruptive love scenes and instances of language, to call The Hour an adult show is to pay it a compliment rarely deserved in primetime television. It isn't just that its spy thriller plot is gripping or that its characters develop into more than they seem at first glance, it's also that it provides a fascinating basis of comparison for how the media has developed in the subsequent 50 years.

Freddie's journalistic intensity is both attractive and off-putting. In him, we see the diligence to dig into a story that is often lost in a mainstream media happy to print the industry convention of the day. But we also see a sense of entitlement and self-importance. Today, Freddie might feel no compunction over hacking phones to get his scoop.

While the politics of The Hour are left-leaning, the show appears to have no interest in axe-grinding. It even at times depicts the information manipulation we've grown so wary of in the 21st century. "So let's present the facts in a way that points to the truth," suggests Freddie when Bel complains that they've been barred from editorializing on a particular story.

What's striking about the Mad Men phenomenon is that despite the copycats it's spawning, it has never boasted particularly strong ratings. Critics and Emmy voters love it, but it has always been one of those shows that people like to talk about more than watch, a sure indicator of style over substance. Style produces admirers, not fans. Despite the comparisons it's drawing, The Hour merits fans.

Listen to Megan Basham discuss The Hour on The World and Everything in It.