For me, this season of The Hour has been all about managing expectations. It’s set in the 50s? It’ll be just like Mad Men! Murder? Spies? Awkward dinner parties? I thought that this might possibly be the greatest television show in the history of television or shows. Then I watched the first episode, and the second, and the third… and I was a bit puzzled to discover that it wasn’t. The show was good — more than good — to be sure, but it wasn’t blowing my socks off or making them roll up and down or doing anything to them really.
Then I realized that this wasn’t a show about political intrigue or the mistakes governments make or freedom of the press. All of these things played a part in it, but The Hour was primarily a story about Freddie Lyon and Bel Rowley. These two people who, even though they will probably never end up together, still care for and even love each other very much.
That was the show. The rest was just window dressing. Moody, well-written window dressing. But because my expectations were much higher, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Then I watched this week’s finale, and for some reason that put the rest of the season into perspective for me. The payoff made me realize that The Hour was never shooting for the moon, but was telling a very measured story about these people whose passions had brought them together, and together in their roles as journalists, were trying to report the news when the country needed it, in the face of a government that was dead set against them. Does any of that make any sense? No? Well, I tried.
Anyway, as I watching the finale and that story came into focus, the thing really took off. I never realized a news program could be so engrossing. And it wasn’t just that, wasn’t just Freddie and Bel trying to see what they could sneak past McCain. It was McCain, Clarence, Marnie watching things in the control room. It was Freddie waiting for Lord Elms to show up. The show really took us to bed and showed us that it was the gentle, more experienced lover we hoped it would be.
The revelation that Clarence was the Soviet Agent working inside the BBC that MI6 was looking for may have been a bit expected, but I thought what he was trying to accomplish with Freddie was a good way to twist things. It wasn’t about grand gestures meant to tear down the government. Clarence wanting Freddie to reveal on air what he had been told about England’s plans to assassinate Nasser was clearly the milk before the meat. Throwing this bit of knowledge out over the airwaves would have sown distrust between the government and the people. Clarence and those he was working with were thinking long term. So when — after he and Bel had been fired — Clarence telling Freddie that he’s ruined what he’s worked for years to build, meaning his work with the Soviets and not the bit about who killed Ruth Elsm, was really strong. You can look past the traitor to his country stuff for a minute and feel sorry for the guy. And while a piece of me is asking, “What the hell was Freddie thinking?” I don’t know if I expected anything different from him. Was there ever any chance that Freddie would chase the story that wasn’t personal to him? Everything Freddie did, his entire reason for pitching The Hour, was personal to him. That passion is probably why he ended up on the Bright Stone list in the first place. Maybe Clarence should have seen the whole thing coming.
The show’s been renewed for a second series, so the question is where does it go from here? Another murder for Freddie to get involved in, another international crisis for the show to be reporting might seem a bit repetitive, and procedural in a way that’s just not done. And even among the characters, there will be new problems to deal with. Bel’s ended her whatever-it-was with Hector, who himself has told Marnie that he’s coming back home. Like I said before, I don’t think Bel and Freddie will ever end up together, so as far as each other are concerned they’re in same place they’ve always been in. Except now they’ve got this show between them. But maybe the number one thing on our lists should be that there is no more show. There is no more Hour. McCain saw to that. So maybe series 2 will pick up a year later, with Freddie and Bel, Hector and Lix, Isaac and Sissy working on a new show, in their Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce digs. I mean, they’re the show, right? We’ve got to find some way to keep them all together.
But really, what’s going on in the background won’t make or break this show, because what works so well are their relationships with each other. Freddie and Bel may be a missed connection on some level, but on another they’re all the other’s got. Hector lives a life of privilege. One might think he’s done the things he’s done in life because that’s what’s expected of him. But he’s wants to come down from that lofty perch, live among the little people, just live. And that’s not something he’ll be able to do at home with Marnie. These are the things I’m glad The Hour was able to show us, and what I’ll be looking forward to when it comes back — For another six episodes? Really? — next year.
I’ve got it! For a couple of weeks now I’ve been talking about how The Hour seems to have trouble focusing on what it wants to be; shifting from spies to international crises without really being able to pay too much attention to any of them. Well, this week I figured it out. After all the dust’s settled, The Hour is the story of Freddie’s relationship with Bel. I don’t know how that story’s going to end. Probably very sad and more than a little drunk. We’ll have to wait for next week’s finale.
The reason I’ve settled on this is because the show just isn’t hitting its other beats hard enough. This week we saw England’s reaction to the crisis in Egypt reach a tipping point, with protesting in the streets (very dignified, which we’ve come to expect from the Brits) and police violence against the protesters (what is this, Alabama?). But the entire time we’re watching Freddie, Hector and Isaac run around with their cameras and people getting clubbed with… well, clubs, our attention was completely focused on Marnie’s confrontation with Bel. It felt almost as if we were seeing the mess out on the streets just so that scene between the two women would have something to break it up.
And The Hour’s spy antics haven’t proven much more interesting. Last week we learned that MI6 was investigating the possibility of a Soviet agent at the BBC. This week we learned that Peter Darrall was a Soviet agent, had gotten Ruth Elms pregnant, and that she was on a list — along with Freddie himself — of bright young people who might possibly be flipped against the English government. Really? That’s it? I mean, Freddie being on the list is kind of a neat twist, but is the fact that the KGB was keeping track of this sort of thing revelatory in the least? I mean, the United States is friends with Russia, and we all know that there are people in our respective governments whose job it is to work against the other. This sort of thing should have been par for the course back in the mid-50s… in London… less than 1,500 miles from the Russian border.
But while these aspects of the show have been a bit of a letdown, the character work is making our proverbial socks roll up and down. Marnie was determined not to make things easy for Bel, but after Bel realized there was nothing she could do or say to defend herself, or deny what Marnie knew, it was like all that weight was lifted from the room. Their relationships with Hector even seemed to bring them together on some level. But after their conversation, Bel knew her arrangement with Hector had become, untenable. You know, as an egghead might say.
But the fact that she was fooling around with another woman’s husband wasn’t the only reason Bel had to drop Hector. With things heating up in Egypt and the government’s response not going over well with the public, McCain is on the warpath and making veiled threats, suggesting that The Hour may not receive its funding if it doesn’t parrot the party line. And The Hour’s publicly broadcast message isn’t the only thing he could possibly use against them. McCain’s many spies with many eyes have been whispering in his ear and he knows about Bel and Hector, which sets Clarence off and, well, this just isn’t good for anyone anymore.
Bel knew her thing with Hector couldn’t last forever, so the sting of having to end it isn’t going to last very long, I suspect. I think Bel always knew that whatever it represented, it would always remain just outside of her reach. This kind of stood in stark contrast to Lix’s night with Freddie we saw in “Episode 3.” Bel may have wanted Hector, but she knew that in the end she couldn’t have him. I think Lix wanted Freddie, and in the back of her mind held out some small hope that there would be something there. The realization that there’s not — that Freddie will always be in love with Bel, and Bel is either too stupid to realize it or to do anything about it — well, I guess that’d be hard for anyone.
So we’ve got this corner of the show that’s doing quite good, although it can’t keep from smacking things on the nose every now and then. Bel’s hissy-fit, stomping her feet in front of her mom and asking why men can do whatever they want while women are forced to sit there and take it was perhaps a bridge too far. As was Lord Elm’s little speech to Freddie at the end of the episode about men like him killing Ruth. It’s more literal and spells things out in a way that it shouldn’t resort to, has proven that it doesn’t have to. But not every show can be perfect. If it were, if The Hour were, we’d have Daniel Craig shooting propane tanks and blowing people up. Not Freddie and Hector fussing about with handkerchiefs in the rain.
Maybe I’m reading too much into things, or maybe I just don’t know how to watch this show. But where last week I felt it had achieved some balance with its different storylines, this week I felt like each one was snapping in our faces, trying to get our attention. I feel like there’s something particular about The Hour we’re supposed to be paying attention to, but we can’t exactly put our fingers on it, so we kind of gloss over everything.
Or it may be that the spy aspects and the backdrop of the Suez Canal crisis were kind of billed as what the show was about, and the fact that these two things have sort of faded into the background have made it seem like things have lost focus a bit. Or maybe I’m an idiot. Anything’s possible! In any case, less focus on the events has given us more time to focus on the characters… Or should I say the characters’ great sadness. “Episode 4″ takes place on Freddie’s birthday, with things heating up in Egypt, Bel and Hector, and creeping toward what I think is going to be a disappointing conclusion to the Ruth Elms case.
There’s some strong mojo working between Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw. You have to feel sorry for Freddie — staring deeply into Bel’s eyes like that, joking about their future life together and how happy they’ll be — knowing how firmly entrenched the poor bastard is in the Friend Zone. But the chemistry between them is so strong you think, if only for a moment, “No, this has to be real. Hector? Piss on him! Bel will come around.” Which makes you even more disappointed when she doesn’t.
And maybe Bel’s feeling some of that disappointment herself, albeit for different reasons. I guess some crazy, out of the blue romance with Mr. Hector Madden would be quite an appealing thing. But Hector’s got a wife, and from the sound of his conversation with Freddie, he imagines that eventually she’s going to find out about all this. Bel hasn’t thought about that, hasn’t thought much farther than the bedroom from the looks of things. And when Marnie calls her up at the studio and gives that cryptic “I KNOW!” message that television wives are always so good at, we see the gears start turning, see Bel thinking that maybe she’s gotten herself in a bit over her head.
And what’s Hector’s thinking in all of this? Like I said, he let’s on with Freddie that he’d like things to move past the casual hookup. And he definitely seems unhappy at home. There were some great cutaways between Freddie and Bel at the bar and Hector, Marnie and her parents back at home. I mean, personally, boring conversation and stuffy dinner parties don’t really justify his philandering, but I guess if that’s how you roll then Hector’s got a reason for looking around. I just don’t think this is going to end up well for him or Bel. But I’m sure that won’t stop them from trying.
And because Freddie knows how to work the moment, Hector’s let slip about the entire thing. I think it’s easy for us to sympathize with Freddie here. We’ve all been in that situation before, when we realized that person we cared about had ended up with someone else (it’s all coming back!). So here comes the crushing depression, which Freddie’s able to shoo away by burying himself in the Elms investigation. But then things between them are going so well at his birthday celebration, he has to think, hey, maybe there’s a chance. And then Hector shows back up… and dances with Bel… and ehhhhhh.
So what does he do? What we’d all do in that situation: Get busy with the attractive older woman. Now, there’s a history there between Freddie and Lix, so it’s not like she’s some floozy he picked up in the bar, and has to find a diplomatic way to get rid of her the next morning. And that’s a good thing, too — the history, I mean — seeing as how they consumate things back at the office. But still, Lix has to know, or have the vaguest inkling of the fact that she was very clearly Freddie’s rebound. And isn’t there something like 20 years between the of them? As long as we’re talking about relationships that aren’t going to end well, here’s another.
The spy subplot creeps along this week. Freddie spots MI6 following him and when he confronts Isaac about it he’s told that a Soviet agent has infiltrated the BBC and the government is trying to root him out. He takes Peter Darrall’s crossword decoder and burns it, trying to keep Freddie from implicating himself in something. The whole thing was kind of unexpected, and that’s… okay? Look, I don’t need to have undercover shenanigans and spies and flying cars and shoe phones and suitcase nukes shoved down my throat, but I do wish that whole side of the show was being fleshed out a bit more. As it is right now, the whole thing is a little confusing. But, there’s still two episodes to go. So maybe it’ll be a case of all things in time. Or maybe not.
It took a couple of episodes, but I think The Hour has finally found that balance between character study and spy thriller. There’s still a lot going on, but its third episode never felt like it was trying to pack too much into itself. Actually, it felt like it had all the time in the world. Which is odd, seeing as how this season’s only got another three episodes to go. How do the Brits stand it?
Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West carry this show — I really like the way their names all come up at the same time in the opening credits (in related news, I’m a loser) — and they’re more than capable of it. I have a feeling The Hour could center around the three of them in an empty room and we’d still be watching, but luckily creator Abi Morgan has given them some really good material to work with. So our starting point is already pretty high. But this week, the show decided to take a bunch of characters who can only half stand each other and stick them in a big, stuffy mansion — an English mansion at that — and watch what happened. And what we got may have been the best episode yet. I believe “the best yet” is the technical term. And I can’t really explain it, except to say that we don’t always need the bang bang shoot ‘em up action studios throw in to pander to the kids. Sometimes riveting television (yes, “riveting” set my douchebag alarm off, too) is the back and forth between Freddie and Hector as they stand in the middle of a field and shoot birds.
What I said before about the show acting like it had all the time in the world to tell its story wasn’t entirely accurate. While much of the episode did seem like it was taking a bit of a break, there were a few things that got pretty short shrift. The most obvious being Bel and Hector finally shacking up together. I suppose we all knew it was going to happen. The two of them obviously did, with Bel showing Hector little more than token resistance before they’re running up and down the halls, sneaking kisses while everyone else is drunk and hiding in wardrobes. When Hector’s wife spots the bit of lipstick behind his ear, she seems to take the whole thing in stride. Her hurt and disappointment breaking through for only a moment before it’s business as usual, stiff upper lip, very nice chicken and rice.
The fact that it’s so expected makes their tryst a little less interesting, much less so when contrasted with Freddie’s feelings for Bel. Which, as pining best friends go, he’s able to keep surprisingly in check. Freddie’s a smart guy, and he may know exactly what Bel and Hector are up to, but he’s got other things to occupy himself. One of those is Angus McCain, who’s also been invited along for the weekend. Freddie sees McCain as an establishment man, through and through, there only to quote the party line, and so can’t pass up the opportunity to rub the fact that the government has no idea what it’s doing in Egypt in his face. And he turns out to be right, when President Nasser refuses their offer to be put on the Canal’s board. I thought it was pretty ironic when, later in the episode, Hector’s father-in-law points out to Freddie that he was right, and says that England is becoming far too entrenched in the things it thinks it’s entitled to, and that maybe it’ll take the likes of men like them to “shake things up.” This, as the two of them tromp off, dressed in their tuxedos, to their fancy dinner party. It was made even more ironic by Hector’s line in the preceding scene about these ridiculous traditions his family forces itself to stand on.
Alright, the season’s half over. And at this point, I’m really hoping that the finale doesn’t end with Freddie and Bel standing on a balcony somewhere, overlooking rain-soaked London, while Freddie explains what the hell just happened with some sort of, “You see, Moneypenny, what Peter Darrall knew couldn’t get out because…” bit of exposition. And then Bel says, “That sure was one crazy The Hour,” as some soft jazz starts playing. The show built up a nice bit of tension throughout, with Isaac keeping an eye on Mr. Kish while Freddie was away, and then during their confrontation at the end. But really, for some trained shadowy Jason Bourne, Kish sure did roll over pretty easy right there at the end. He gave up the information — not even the information, but a clue — and then killed himself. So Freddie’s left with precious little information. “Bright Stone,” the clue left behind in Darrall’s crossword puzzle is a person, not a thing. And Ruth Elms was apparently married, not for love, but for some other reason. Maybe to cover up the fact that her husband, who we discovered back at the estate, is a homosexual. What does it all MEAN? Right now, The Hour’s got the journey down. I just worry a little bit about the destination.
I think those British are on to something. They get in, produce 3-6 hours of a show, and get out. If the show’s no good, you’ve only wasted a few hours. But if it’s a hit, you want more! More! Of course, this kind of production model comes with its own set of pitfalls. One of those is that a show has much less time in which to establish its world and its characters’ places in it. The Hour had its work cut out for it in its first episode, but this week really kicked things into overdrive, and we were held down while storyline after storyline was stuffed down our throats.
It’s been some weeks since the pilot. Freddie and Bel have got their show on the air, and Hector’s doing his best to get them canned. Although I guess you could say Freddie’s doing his best to help Hector get them canned. Freddie’s feelings for Bel are as obvious as ever, but the show’s — the one we’re watching, not the one they’re making – doing a really good job of keeping those in the background. Bel is still having to deal with prejudices against women. Hector is dealing with insecurities in front of the camera. Freddie’s found a major clue while investigating Ruth’s death. And if all that weren’t enough, the Egyptians have just nationalized the Suez Canal. Can you see me exaggeratedly wiping the sweat from my brow? Isn’t is CRAZY??
But while the show does seem to be overcrowded, it’s somehow managing to pull everything off. Or should I say that by the end of the episode, it’s managed to pull it off. The first half is very character-heavy, taking time to explore everyone’s various relationships. There’s a really good scene in which Freddie ticks off the major bullet points of Hector’s upbringing while Hector stands by looking rich and wryly amused. You get the idea that Hector’s under no illusions about how privileged he is and takes a bit of pleasure showing it off to people. That image he projects to the world breaks down however when he’s on camera and either can’t remember the questions he was going to ask or doesn’t know when to interject over his guests. It’s a bit curious to see someone like Hector end up in a jam like this, what with his time behind the sports desk in Manchester, being awarded TWO medals while in the military, his many female admirers. People like him, and he’s obviously got a way with those around him, so what’s the problem? I can’t decide if it’s a lack of substance or if it’s fear stemming from the fact that this is the first substantial thing he’s having to do in life.
We’re also introduced to Bel’s mother, Verda, a floozy who’s dressing about 20 years younger than she is. Their’s is an interesting relationship because you’ve seen similar ones portrayed on other shows — Elliot and her parents on Scrubs… and, um… others… — where the two parties have the hardest time approaching the other over the littlest things. But here, Bel and Verda have no problem showing how much they disapprove of the other’s lifestyle. And when we see Verda squeezing herself into a too-tight dress at 9 o’clock at night to meet with one of her gentlemen callers, we see Bel acting almost as if she’s her mother’s mother.
By the end of the episode, we’re much more steeped in the meat-and-potatoes, this-is-what-the-show’s-about stuff. Freddie’s discovery of the murdered professor’s crossword puzzle decoder still feels a lot like Rubicon, and the significance of what he was chasing or why he was murdered hasn’t been explored enough to give us a proper idea of where it’s all headed. But Thomas Kish, the murderer, turns up at The Hour as an interpreter, so I imagine it’ll all boil over soon enough.
But the main event is the beginning of the Suez Canal crises, which is obviously meant to backdrop the season. Hector’s interview with the Egyptian official is kind of the perfect climax to the episode. Freddie’s advice to Hector on how it needs to be handled works and Hector’s finally able to push his interview the ways he’s supposed to. Bel’s able to stand up to the mousy government official who wants to pull the plug on the interview because it might make the Crown look bad. Everyone gets their moment.
It’s a nice payoff, but the fun is in the getting there. The Hour is juggling quite a bit, but seems more than capable of handling it all. And it knows how to ratchet up the tension. There are small moments toward the end when the characters are panicking, sure that because of what’s going down in Egypt, World War III is right around the corner. It’s a moment where you have to stop and remind yourself that you know how it all turns out, and no, there is no World War III. We get through it and, as the Brits say, we all jog on.
Mad Men has royally screwed any show set in or before 1965. The sixties? Mad Men did it! Skinny ties? Mad Men did it! Sexism? Watergate? Aliens landing? Mad Men did it! So when the BBC announced that they were doing a period-piece about a fictional news program set in 1950s London, I think more than a few people out there said — you guessed it —
Frank Stallone Mad Men did it! But while Mad Men is a character study, filled with deep brooding and rumination on the human condition, to which plot is mostly peripheral, The Hour is the opposite. The setting, the wardrobe and the musical cues may be familiar, but this is a very different show.
If I were describing The Hour to someone who didn’t watch much television, I’d say it was Mad Men meets Rubicon. Although I suppose if you didn’t watch much television (and even if you did) you never would have seen Rubicon. So we’ll just say call it Mad Men meets… oh, Conspiracy Theory, I guess. Yes, I’m aware of all the Broadcast News comparisons floating around out there, but I’ve never seen it, so you’ll find those absent from this review. It centers around journalist Freddie Lyon (played by Ben Whishaw, who you’ll recognize as the BASTARD who shot Daniel Craig in Layer Cake), who’s pitching his idea for a news broadcast that, in the middle of the Cold War and when the USSR is becoming a major threat, will report actual news instead of the debutante ball and high society wedding announcement frippery people are used to. It’s a great idea, and in an era when the more traditional newsreels are in their death throes, a potentially revolutionary one. But Freddie’s more than a little full of himself, and while the BBC is hip to his idea they don’t want him anywhere near a camera. Helping to keep Freddie’s wounded ego in check is Bel Rowley (played by Romola Garai), the show’s female producer in a time when being a professional female anything was a bit of a novelty. And if Bel’s job wasn’t cut out for her before, it certainly is when the BBC says they’d like to bring on pretty face Hector Madden (played by the Baltimore PD’s Jimmy McNulty) as the public face of the program.
So, the characters are all in place, but even though it’s well-written and highly polished what we’ve got is Aaron Sorkin’s new show set in 1950s London. What really sets The Hour apart is the thriller aspect we’ll be following through its 6-episode first season. Freddie’s called to cover the engagement party of Ruth Elms, an old friend who turns out to be connected to a murdered professor. When Ruth shows up later saying that there was more to the murder than the local papers are letting on, Freddie’s got to get onboard with the program the BBC’s taken from him because it’s the only one that will give him the latitude to dig around and chase after the truth.
Let’s talk about Mad Men some more. One of the things the show did a lot in the beginning — which always made me laugh but ran the risk of devolving into parody — was have the characters act outlandishly racist or sexist in some way, with the subtext of “IT’S THE SIXTIES!!” almost beating you over the head. The Hour never does that. By the end of the first episode it ocurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single computer or cell phone the entire time. Well, it’s 1956, so that’s to be expected. But while watching the show, I never felt like I was being reminded that it was 1956. The show follows the birth of a hard-hitting news program — sorry, programme — which is something we see/hear a lot about in the era of 24-hour news. The Hour is just looking at it from an angle we’ve never seen before.
As far as the relationships between the characters go, the first episode only scratches the surface. There’s a lot of history between Freddie and Bel. Her career is on the rise and she’s obviously going to go on to do great things, which scares Freddie because he’s obviously in love with her and half-suspects she’s going to leave him behind, so he copes by getting in people’s faces and being an ass. I imagine Bel’s aware of his feelings for her, as her attitude toward him is that of the high school girlfriend who’s growing up now but will always have a soft spot for him. At this point, he don’t know very much about Hector, besides the fact that he’s good looking, likes to fool around behind his wife’s back, and probably isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. “I’m a big fan of animals,” he says to Bel in their first scene together.
The spy drama kicks off to an interesting start, but there isn’t a terrible amount to grab onto in this first episode. What we see is mostly shadowy figures with icy expressions walking down dark corridors. I admit that it does seem like something we’ve seen before, but it’s early days yet so we’ll see how it all shakes out. I won’t say that it doesn’t matter because The Hour is all about the characters, because it’s not all about the characters. There’s a very specific story being told here. A story in which society is waking up to the fact that, with the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, the world is a dangerous place, it’s always going to be a dangerous place, and there are real issues out there that need exploring and that people deserve to have told to them. It just so happens that The Hour is getting all the character stuff right, too.