‘The Hour’ Is ‘Mad Men’ for People Who Hate ‘Mad Men’

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"‘The Hour’ Is ‘Mad Men’ for People Who Hate ‘Mad Men’"

I’ve written before that I tried Mad Men and just couldn’t get into it, turned off, I think, by the characters themselves and their distance from what have always seemed to me to be a vital part of the ’60s. I will catch up before the next season starts in deference to all you good people (Though can anyone promise me that the show feels less claustrophobic as it goes on? You can use this post as an open thread to try to buck me up.), but I’ll admit I’ve been eager for alternatives, for shows that will take the gorgeous looks and desperateness to break out of old roles of that particular moment, and do something I’m more engaged by with them.

Which may be why I’m so mad for The Hour, which premieres on BBC America at 10 tonight: it’s set in a newsroom, which I’m a total sucker for; features Dominic West back in high seducer mode and ready to throw down with Jon Hamm; and is explicitly engaged with gender and class (and sometimes race) for almost every moment of the show without being boring or pedantic about it about it. As I write in my review for The Atlantic:

The setting helps tremendously in highlighting these issues. In an early broadcast, anchor Hector Madden (The Wire’s Dominic West, in his triumphant return to television) flubs the framing of an investigative piece the up-jumped working-class reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) did about the difficulty West Indian immigrants have finding housing in London: He ends the segment with a depressing reaffirmation that in London “If you’re white, you’re alright.” The cast may be all-white, but they’re aware of the problems of people who don’t share their country of origin or skin tone. Later, their producer, Bel Rowley (an unexpectedly tremendous Romola Garai), kills an interview Lyon gets with a grieving Cabinet minister about a bill to abolish hanging in favor of a live interview Madden does with the Egyptian ambassador to the U.K. after Egypt seizes control of the Suez Canal, while Lyon begins an investigation into the mysterious death of an academic. The compromises Bel has to make are real, and not just because the stories have real impacts. Because the BBC operated under a Royal Charter, and because in 1956, the network was a year into its competition with the newly-created independent competitor ITV, the approval of high government officials wasn’t an immaterial concern, and Bel is doubly under pressure as a woman producer.

There’s a real virtue to the fact that the story begins with Bel in a position of power, rather than simply charting her upward trajectory. She can stumble as well as rise, at one point lecturing the show’s secretary not to do little extras for the men on the show because “do you want to be taken seriously? Or forever be some stupid little marionette forever fluttering on the arm of every good-looking man in the BBC? First rule, don’t make tea.” While she has a male mentor in the BBC director of news, Bel has decision-making authority over Hector and Freddie, an old friend with whom she’s long plotted a new kind of television show, only to beat him to the job of producer while he’s stuck covering domestic news. “They’re humoring you,” Freddie lashes out at Bel when he finds out she’s got the job. “They don’t want a woman. A woman is difficult, hysterical. And you can never really find one who’ll ever stay. Another couple of years and you’ll probably want a baby.” He doesn’t actually believe any of it, but that doesn’t mean he won’t use her insecurities to hurt her.

I think there are some problems with the show, most notably the espionage subplot, which The Hour doesn’t actually need for extra gravity. But the acting is so good, top-to-bottom, and the show’s got some of that Deadwood Shakespearean air, a sense in the dialogue that you’re in a profoundly different place. This is politics as drama done beautifully.

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