News, War, and Martinis
Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
'The Hour' celebrates the glory days of journalism.
The few Americans who have heard anything about The Hour, which airs on BBC America and takes place inside a late-1950s London newsroom, have probably heard it described as Great Britain's answer to Mad Men. The shorthand makes a certain kind of sense. Both shows unfold in the middle of the 20th century. Both re-create how men and women behaved, and misbehaved, in an Atomic Era workplace. And both are contractually required, I'm told, to deliver at least one shot per episode of backlit cigarette smoke spiraling past rufescent lips and Brylcreemed hairdos and sofas upholstered in bygone shades of ochre and chartreuse.
But there is also a basic difference between the two shows. By choosing to set Mad Men in the world of advertising, Matthew Weiner created a series about how we used to be-or, more precisely, what we used to want. Mad Men looks back on the desires that once drove us and much of its appeal derives from how dated those desires seem to us now. It is stuck--pleasurably stuck, but stuck all the same--in the past.
The Hour, which has returned for its second season, is not. Instead of dramatizing a medium that turns inward for inspiration, creator Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame) shaped her show around a field that reaches out into the wider world: journalism. Unlike Don Draper and Peggy Olson, The Hour's characters are not symbols of their own antiquated obsessions. They are people obsessed, as every good journalist is, with finding out the truth about others. "I've allowed journalists to be heroic in the 1950s in a way they are not, unfortunately, allowed to be today," Morgan says. "I was very driven by the heroism of journalists who did investigate. Who didn't feel the pressure of somebody blogging what they were writing about. Who could take the time to unravel and grow a story. And good journalists still do that. There's still room for that kind of journalism. I feel The Hour is kind of a war cry for it." At a time when advertising is ubiquitous and journalism is endangered, this not only makes The Hour the more resonant of the two series. It also makes it a lot more fun to watch.
During its debut season, The Hour followed the team behind a fledgling BBC news magazine--reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), and presenter Hector Madden (Dominic West)--as they investigated the Suez Crisis, unraveled an upper-crust murder mystery, sniffed out a Communist mole, and indulged in a messy office love triangle. The plot was half Broadcast News, half John le Carre, and if you liked that sort of thing--i.e., if you had eyes, ears, and a pulse--you were hooked. The second season picks up 10 months later, in late 1957: the workplace menage has dissipated, other relationships have started to simmer, and the hot new scoop is all about immigration, the nuclear arms race, battered call girls, and a scandalous SoHo nightclub. This latest installment is even more habit-forming than the last.
The decision to set a scripted drama in the grubby ghetto of journalism works so well on The Hour that it can seem like something of a revelation. But we shouldn't be surprised. Earlier generations were always alive to the dramatic possibilities of the press. Long before cable news, journalistic plotlines propelled many of Hollywood's most vibrant productions: His Girl Friday, Meet John Doe, Foreign Correspondent, Deadline USA, Absence of Malice, The Parallax View, All the President's Men--the list goes on. …