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TV Tonight: The Hour

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AMC may have had a hell of a time figuring out whether to bring Mad Men back, for how much money and at what length, but other networks are not hesitating (despite the show’s relatively paltry ratings) to put their own versions of Mad Men on the air—or, at least, their own versions of social and personal drama set in a highly stylized midcentury-modernist past. ABC’s Pan Am is Mad Men plus airplanes. NBC’s The Playboy Club is Mad Men minus the ambivalence about the role of women.

And the BBC’s The Hour, the best new show this summer (debuting tonight on BBC America), is Mad Men plus a lot: plus a Cold War espionage thriller, plus a searing look at the trials and conflicts of TV journalism, plus—for you Wire fans—Dominic West.

Also, minus about five four years; where Mad Men began in New York in 1961 1960, The Hour starts in London, 1956. The setting is the BBC itself, in the news department of the nascent TV broadcaster, where a struggle is underway between ambitious personalities over what role the new medium will have in telling the story of the times. The network is trying to upgrade its news coverage from stolid, short newsreels with an immediate, in-depth, investigation-focused newscast, The Hour.

The project’s champion is Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a reporter with passion but poor office-politics skills. He rubs his superiors the wrong way, and the job of producer passes over him to his best friend, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), who encounters unsurprising resistance as a female supervisor in a 1950s workplace. She takes on Freddie as a reporter, but the job of anchor goes to handsome, charming,socially connected Hector Madden (West), who looks the part of a dashing newsman but needs heavy coaching in playing it. (If the dynamic reminds you of Broadcast News, so will the unfolding infatuation triangle among the three.) The personal, office and social dynamics would be enough for a fascinating series, but driving the story is Freddie’s investigation into a murder in a “mugging” that begins to look like it has much greater and more newsworthy motives, at which point the Broadcast News narrative becomes a kind of retro State of Play.

The Hour checks all the visual boxes of a Mad Men–style period show—the skinny ties, fedoras, &c.—but it has a distinctively dark, noirish look that is perhaps more suited to postwar 1950s Britain as opposed to New Frontier America. And the performances in this workplace drama are uniformly excellent. Garai conveys the toughness that Bel needs to stand out in a sexist workplace—while managing what would be a tough newscast launch for a man or a woman—without losing her character’s human flaws and doubts.

And West will quickly banish thoughts of McNulty from your mind. Though the setup, a la Broadcast News, disposes you to sympathize with Whishaw’s feisty idealist over West’s entitled upper-class boy, the story by Abi Morgan quickly teases out the complexities in the two men. Freddie has a mind as incisive as a chisel, but his combativeness and quickness to judge can blind him, and West soon demonstrates the canny self-awareness behind Hector’s privileged ease.

If there’s a flaw to this involving series, it’s that, in the British style, the season is only six hours. It’s still months until Mad Men returns, and in the meantime, you may find yourself wishing this Hour lasted all day.

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