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BBC America's 'The Hour' burns slowly, but bright

TelevisionEntertainmentBBCUnrest, Conflicts and WarJournalismMad Men (tv program)Crime, Law and Justice

In BBC America's absorbing series, "The Hour" (9 p.m. Aug. 17; 3.5 stars), a group of TV journalists in 1956 London launches a new kind of BBC news program (think a live "60 Minutes") that hopes to report honestly about—not to—the British government.

Don't stop reading! You don't have to be a news geek to appreciate the series. Writer/creator Abi Morgan adds spies, romance, conflicted characters and wonderful historical detail to the basic premise to create an intriguing mystery thriller that delves into issues of Cold War politics, workplace sexism, gender and class.

The story opens with the sarcastic Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) preparing to make his pitch for a hard-hitting investigative news program that he hopes to produce. Too bad his bosses decide to hire his longtime pal (and unrequited love), Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), as the producer of the program, calling it "The Hour." (This sounds like a forward-thinking move, but Bel later learns her boss wanted a woman in charge because she would be easier to push around.)

The BBC higher-ups add insult to Freddie's injury by hiring the suave, well-bred Hector Madden (Dominic West) as the show’s anchor. He's a medaled war hero who is married to an heiress, but he’s not half the journalist working-class Freddie is.

Bel convinces Freddie to work as the show's chief local correspondent. Further insulted, Freddie immediately pursues a story no one wants him to follow: A famous professor is murdered and an old debutante friend of Freddie’s warns him that it was not a theft, but part of a conspiracy that could bring down the government. This plunges Freddie, and eventually Bel and Hector and “The Hour” staff members into the dark world of MI-6 and KGB intrigues. (Those are the British and Russian equivalents of the CIA, respectively.)

It takes a little while for “The Hour” to get to the mystery, but I urge patience. The smartly written series throws a lot of information, historical context, beautiful sets and costumes at viewers early on to create what eventually becomes a first-rate thriller.

The actors are just as convincing as the period details and historical references. Oona Chapman, Burn Gorman, Anna Chancellor and Julian Rhind-Tutt are perfectly cast is supporting roles, but the three main stars shine.

Whishaw plays Freddie as an annoying, vane but committed good guy. He and Bel have been friends forever, and even though he pines for her he can be as cruel as only a close friend of family member can be. Hector is seemingly dim-witted, but West slowly reveals a privileged man with doubts about his life of entitlements. Garai steals the show as Bel, who fights both sexism at work and the romantic desires for Hector that could derail it.

Because of its period setting, “The Hour” is the first of several new series that people will call “Mad Men” rip-offs. But it’s so much more gripping than AMC’s critical hit.

Yes, I’m one of the few who has not been able to embrace “Mad Men.” Each new season, I start to watch it in the hopes that something will click and I will “get it.” But I don’t. The characters never connect, possibly because the personal conflicts that creator Matthew Weiner puts them through never relate all that well to the ad campaign metaphors he builds around them. There’s an air of superiority to the show that renders it a cold, aloof affair for me.

“The Hour” may burn slowly, but its characters—like viewers soon will—feel the heat.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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