I wrote earlier this year that The Hour, the BBC’s period drama about the producers, reporters, and anchor on a show of the same title trying to break through the BBC’s strictures and the stifling social environment of the late 1950s, was the show that Aaron Sorkin wanted his HBO drama The Newsroom to be. It was attuned to the actual rhythms and difficulties of reporting, the stories are legitimately revealing rather than pontificating, and the characters face genuine obstacles to getting those stories on the air. And in the second season of the show, which began its run on BBC America last night, I think that’s become even more true, particularly in the way that The Hour is handling the rise of a phenomenon that The Newsroom tried to critique decades later: the rise of commercial television programming aimed at women.
I talked to Abi Morgan, The Hour‘s creator, about the show’s approach to gender in general, and about the kind of programming aimed at women like Marnie (Oona Chaplin), the upper-class wife of The Hour anchor Hector (Dominic West), who begins exploring a career as the host of a cooking show. She explained:
I think if you look at the women, the on-screen talent at that time, on the whole they were either singing along to a puppet, or they were presenting the kind of soft magazine programs that were just starting to come up through the ’50s. I liked the idea of Marnie almost becoming quite literally this professional housewife. She’s this Fanny Cradock-esque character. It also felt like a kind of brilliant, brittle metaphor for this kind of life Marnie finds herself encased in. You’ll see that marriage really is tested through the course of the series….
The mainstay of commercials of that time was the great British housewife. Marnie is very much the consumer of her time. On the wider level, the show is about the birth of capitalism in the ’50s and into the ’60s. The warmongers were finding a way of making money out of nuclear paranoia, [and there was a] global desire to be part of the arms and space race. This parallels what’s going on with Marnie. She’s someone who aspires to a bigger life. When you write a drama set in this era, you have a whole period where if your characters have any gumption or charisma, they have to break away from this suppressive ’50s world.
Where The Newsroom could be viciously dismissive of mass culture aimed at women—Will McAvoy ran himself into trouble in part by insulting a gossip columnist for covering the Real Housewives, and declaring that he’d fix another woman whose primary flaw included consuming that kind of show—The Hour doesn’t try to make judgements about whether it’s bad or not that programming aimed by women exists. Instead, it tries to reckon with what it means that this kind of programming speaks powerfully to the ennui of post-war women like Marnie, who aren’t working, and how their power as consumers affects the entire media landscape. When Bel debates whether or not to run a segment about Christian Dior, she’s also trying to figure out where fashion fits in the hierarchy of news and human interest.
And the show never presents Marnie as stupid for being entranced by a commercial, or seeking out a career using the skills that she has, even if they’re feminine ones. Of course she’s bored! She was bred for a specific role, to be a good wife to a man like Hector, who was expected to play a corresponding part, but instead cheats on her, pursues entertainment in nightclubs where she is not invited, and treats her as if she couldn’t possibly be interested in his career. Marnie is an intelligent, capable woman, but no one asks anything of her, not even that she be available for sex and housekeeping. Even if she’s only valuable to television as a consumer, at least it’s a form of being valued.
The thing that Will McAvoy, and that by extension The Newsroom, never seemed to get, is that consuming frivolous things doesn’t make you a frivolous person. Everyone I know who watches Real Housewives does so because they recognize the show as a social critique folded into a trainwreck like a pill into applesauce. It’s possible to even consume things that you know are bad for you, or that have no redeeming social value whatsoever, to recognize them as such, and to enjoy them anyway. The question is not whether or not someone is a good person for watching certain things. It’s what need they speak to, what itch they scratch.