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Television review: BBC’s ‘The Hour’ is time well spent

Julian Rhind-Tutt, left, Dominic West and Hannah Tointon star in Season 2 of "The Hour."
(Laurie Sparham / BBC America)

When the BBC’s six-part period piece “The Hour” premiered last year, critics were divided — mostly by the Atlantic.

In Britain, reviews of the show, which revolves around the creation of an envelope-pushing television news magazine called “The Hour” in 1950s London, groused about the slow pace, the outlandish spy intrigue and its occasional preachiness. In the U.S., the reaction was more of a collective swoon; the mood, the costumes, the writing, the cast (and of course those accents!) were so intoxicating that even an increasingly absurd plot proved only a minor distraction.

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Ironically, the second season begins as BBC News finds itself embroiled in a reporting scandal that would serve nicely as an A-plot for the show. “The Hour” holds, as most journalism-based theater does, that hard-working reporters are too often undone by keepers who cower behind a Potemkin village of “standards” and “policy” in an effort to avoid controversy — unless controversy pays the bills, in which case they manufacture it.

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But “The Hour,” like “Mad Men” to which it has been exhaustingly compared, is more concerned with its workplace as a window on an era and a nation than it is exposing the inner-workings of journalism.

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As Season 2 opens, the show within the show is now solidly successful, having made its anchor, Hector Madden (Dominic West) enough of a star that he now wiles his time away in nightclubs, signing autographs and consorting with chorus girls, only to skid into the studio with seconds to spare.

Watching the clock and sighing in irritated resignation is producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), who puts up with Hector’s antics for the same reason his wife, Marnie (Oona Chaplin), does — because he is talented and charming and because, as women in the 1950s, they may have increasing influence but they do not yet have real power. Randall Brown (Peter Capaldi), Bel’s new boss, on the other hand, does have power.

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Within minutes of the first episode, he not only gives Madden an ultimatum, he brings in a co-host/possible replacement, none other than Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), the dogged young firebrand around whom last season revolved. After broadcasting an interview that questioned the British government, Freddie was fired, leaving Bel bereft of both a constant if unrequited suitor and her most brilliant news gatherer.

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So this season’s cast, which includes the deliciously oily government press secretary Angus (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and the wry, dry foreign news editor Lix (Anna Chancellor), is not just as terrific as it was last season, it’s better.

Capaldi’s Brown may seem buttoned-down and OCD finicky, but he’s here to turn the heat up, not down. He not only questions “The Hour’s” rather smug self-confidence, he clearly has a past with Lix, which means we may finally get to see more of Chancellor, who already steals every scene she’s in by simply squinting through the inevitable plume of cigarette smoke.

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More important, despite Whishaw’s brilliant portrayal of Q in “Skyfall,” this season is less James Bond, more “The Wire,” with both the news and personal stories focusing on tensions of an increasingly multicultural city and a rise in gangland-style crime.

The men and women of “The Hour” are dealing with shifting social strata, though creator Abi Morgan seems content to leave Britain’s class issues to “Downton Abbey,” showcasing instead the effects of immigration and the women’s movement. Garai’s Bel remains the luminous core of the story, sacrificing, as such women inevitably do, love for work, though this popular narrative crutch seems more believable than usual here, considering the period and the profession.

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After getting sacked, Freddie apparently read a lot of Kerouac and lived in Paris, so he returns with a wider vision and a new resolve. Indeed this season has an air of maturity that owes more to character than fedoras, pencil skirts and the still seductive snick of monogrammed lighters.

Bel and her staff are no longer young Turks shaking up the fusty old BBC; now they are, for better or worse, part of the mainstream news media, forced to question their own motivations as well as those of the Establishment. In the first two episodes anyway, this makes for a more sophisticated storytelling, a drama of adults who must take responsibility for decisions of the mind as well as the heart.

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‘The Hour’

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Where: BBC America

When: 6, 7:15, 9 and 10:15 p.m. Wednesday

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Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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