I’m glad The Hour creator and writer Abi Morgan listed Broadcast News, the great 1987 James L. Brooks film, as a heavy influence on her show at a recent event for TV journalists, because it would seem churlish for her not to. For as good as The Hour’s first episode is, it owes such a heavy debt to that earlier film in the creation of its central trio of characters that it can occasionally feel like Morgan said, “Hey, let’s stick Broadcast News in the 1950s and toss some conspiracy stuff in there as well.” At the same time, that central dynamic—two men and one woman, with shifting lines of admiration, lust, and respect—is such a time-honored one that it would work regardless of if there was an earlier film that was largely similar.
And fortunately enough, The Hour is good on its own, without those comparison points. A lot of what makes it compelling—what elevates it beyond standard “We’re journalists, and we’re going to report the TRUTH!” boilerplate—is the fact that we’re deposited within a familiar setup of characters in a time we’re not exactly familiar with. It’s ’50s London, and that means that the Soviet Union lurks just over the horizon, the international espionage game is just heating up, and television is a medium that’s new enough to seem limitless in potential. When lead character Freddie (played by a delightfully nervy Ben Whishaw) starts talking about the kind of news program he’d like to see on TV while pitching it to executives—and while pitching himself as the face of that program—it still sounds sort of thrilling. In the first section, he’ll tackle immigration! Then, the U.S. civil rights movement (in its incipient stages)! Why are we talking about puffery while the USSR has nukes aimed at us just a few time zones away?!
If I have a concern about where The Hour is going (and unlike most critics, I’ve decided not to watch the upcoming episodes, in order to better match my knowledge to what my fellow American viewers know), it’s that I worry it will become a “boy, journalists really told it like it was back then, didn’t they?” tale. It’s the same issue I had with what seems like another key touchstone for this series: Good Night And Good Luck, George Clooney’s dramatization of Edward R. Murrow’s look into the McCarthy hearings. That movie was roundly held up by left-leaning folks back when it came out as an example of how journalism should be practiced, an example of the press speaking truth to power and not being cowed by men who would like them very much to shut up (as opposed to the press’ role in the build-up to the Iraq War, say). But that always seemed like too much weight to place on an enjoyable but mostly slight docudrama, a movie that was always better as a straightforward recreation of events, not as some sort of political clarion call.
There’s some of this in The Hour, too, when Freddie talks about how the world is going to hell, but all anybody wants to hear about is news of the high society engagements and weddings he covers. (In the première, coverage of the engagement of one Ruth Elms, a woman from his past, puts him on the track of a story that seems likely to dominate whatever comes next.) And he wonders if that’s because what he’s showing people is specifically designed to keep them docile and unquestioning, even as revolutions are breaking out all over. He’s undoubtedly a smart, driven guy, and that pushes a lot of his frustration. But he’s also right that what he’s reporting doesn’t really have intrinsic value. He wants and needs more, and it’s that want and need that both pulls people toward him and pushes them away.
It’s that drive that similarly intrigues him about the woman he obviously loves, Bel (the always very good Romola Garai). The episode perhaps makes too much out of how Bel’s a pioneer, blazing new ground for women in a time when their career prospects weren’t terribly wide. (There’s a particularly clumsy scene where one person tells her that with her maternal instincts, she’s wasted in news.) Yet she loves what she does as passionately as Freddie. At the same time, she’s just so happy to have a job, to be advancing so quickly in the world of journalism instead of having to be, well, that motherly stereotype, that she accepts pretty much any opportunity that comes along. That, of course, is how she ends up as the producer of the show Freddie pitched, which is no longer his and has been taken over by “the network” as it were, re-conceived to feature the much more TV friendly Hector Madden (Dominic West, whom you already know and love) at the center. But still, Freddie deigns to work on the program, after angrily rejecting Bel’s initial offer, because he knows whatever it is, it’ll end up better than covering debutante affairs (though said affairs lead to his big story). Freddie is pompous and arrogant because he feels the world owes him something; Bel knows things could very well be worse. (That the two call each other “Moneypenny” and “James” is far too cutesy—and apparently somewhat historically inaccurate—and seems like too big of a tip of the hat to the story’s spy moments.)
Hector’s a bit shadier of a character. I don’t mean that to say that I think he’s wrapped up in the show’s spy story or anything. I just mean that we know far less about him. He’s the pretty face that will get Bel and Freddie’s stories and ideas on the air (presumably if he can be convinced to read them), but there’s also a sly confidence to him that has obviously intrigued and unnerved Bel, a sly confidence that undermines Freddie at every step. I like the way that Bel knows the lines he uses on her are lines but still can’t help but fall for them just a bit, and I like how West plays the character as kind of a cheeky bastard, who knows he’s a very handsome man who can’t believe some of the shit he gets away with.
The spy stuff feels a little rote at this point. (I’m assuming it will all turn out to be a tale of international espionage, simply because MI-6 is involved.) There’s a grim, understated quality to it—I particularly like how the camera cuts from the professor struggling with his assassin in the subway tunnels to Ruth wiping away a bloody nose, strengthening a link between two characters who will never meet in the course of the series—but the storytelling is very, very pat and predictable. Of course the cigarette in the case has the clue Freddie needs to get to the next step of the story. Of course he’s going to follow a strange series of half-understood clues from one stop to the next. I get that he’s new at this and won’t immediately leap to looking for secret messages on cigarette paper, but the audience is so far ahead of him at every step that it’s hard not to be a little impatient with this aspect of the show.
No, what’s worth watching The Hour for is the show’s strong sense of who these people are and how they interact, combined with a sharp aesthetic look. Seemingly every show debuting this fall wants to be the new Mad Men, but The Hour actually manages that trick, at least visually, by going back to the ’50s and heading over to London, two things that differentiate the show just enough from its obvious inspiration to keep it visually interesting. Think of, say, the elegant way that the camera always keeps Bel in the background of shots where Freddie’s in the foreground, just to let you know how intertwined they are. Or think of how she touches that rough-and-tumble old lamp and you know so much about their relationship, so much that the show didn’t need to blatantly say a few scenes later. Or think of how that shot of the professor running down the long subway passage, mostly in shadow, lets us know immediately where we are in time and what kind of story we’re in. There’s clunky stuff in The Hour, but this first episode offers plenty of promise to keep us watching.
Note: I’m well aware that our British viewers are a few episodes ahead of American viewers at this point. I’d greatly appreciate if you’d mark spoilers as such in comments as we go through the series in the next few weeks. Also, I’m watching the original British episode cuts on screener. It is entirely possible these have been edited down for American broadcast. If a scene I’m describing didn’t seem to appear in the version you watched, that’s almost certainly why.