When “The Hour,” the drama about a BBC news program in the late ’50s, begins its second season (tonight at 10 on BBC America), the show-within-the-show has some competition. We’re told that rival network ITV has copied much of “The Hour” formula for a new show called “Uncovered,” which our heroine, “Hour” producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) tries to dismiss as “just news with advertisements.” When dashing anchorman Hector Madden (Dominic West) considers jumping ship to the rival program, Bel and others suggest that his work on the new show couldn’t be as substantive as on the old one.
In these debates about the push and pull between good news judgment and commercial concerns, it’s hard not to imagine “The Hour” creator Abi Morgan wrestling with the same issues while writing the series. One gets the sense there is the show that Morgan genuinely wants to write, about the changing social and political mores of England in this period, and about the professional and ethical challenges that come with working on a show like “The Hour.” And then there is the show that Morgan feels like she has to write in order to draw in enough viewers for the weightier stuff. In the first season, it was a spy story that roped in Bel’s reporter best friend Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw). In the new season, Bel, Hector and Freddie all get caught up in a surge of vice and violent crime, and one of our heroes stands accused of being part of it.
In both cases, Morgan is grafting a conventional genre on top of the more thoughtful material – a spoonful of violence to make the medicine go down – and the results are iffy.
The spy story never really felt like a necessary part of the first season, and actually became a distraction by the time we got to an otherwise terrific finale about “The Hour” staff defying their government overseers to report candidly on the Suez crisis. The crime story feels slightly more connected in the two new episodes I’ve seen (though I’m admittedly comparing that to six episodes from last year, and the spy stuff was more promising at the start, as well), and yet the moment the camera went into Bel’s office to show she has a corkboard covered with crime scene photos – much like the conspiracy board Freddie was assembling last year, or the one the hero on any thriller inevitably has to construct – my heart sank.
Would a version of “The Hour” without espionage or crime be as commercial? Well, it’s not like the show is a non-stop string of ethics debate. There’s a web of complicated, compelling romantic intrigue involving Bel, Hector, Freddie, Hector’s neglected wife Marnie (Oona Chaplin) and other interested parties that provides plenty of drama (and some comedy) on its own. (When the show was being compared to “Mad Men” last season because of the period clothing, Morgan insisted her real model was “Broadcast News.”) And by introducing Peter Capaldi (the gloriously profane Malcolm Tucker from “The Thick of It” and “In the Loop”) as Bel’s mysterious but wise new boss, Morgan has already upped the level of tension in the office while adding one of the best actors from that side of the pond.
It’s a pleasure to watch the whole cast. Hector’s in a more self-destructive mode this year, which could evoke West’s work as McNulty on “The Wire,” but which instead feels specific to this very famous (and, more than anyone wants to admit, talented) man. Whishaw (fresh off a terrific introduction as the new Q in “Skyfall”) plays a Freddie transformed by what he’s been doing since we last saw him – calmer and more worldly – and yet still convinced he’s unquestionably the smartest man in every room. And Garai (who doesn’t have the American profile of her male co-stars, unless you’re a big “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” fan) is almost effortless at playing a very bright, ambitious woman pushing so hard for success in an era predisposed against her gender, and balancing the needs of the show with her complicated feelings about the various men who work on it.
It’s a treat to be back in this world again, and perhaps by the end of this season I’ll feel happier about the crime arc than I did about the spy stuff. But if the BBC orders a third season, I’d like to see Morgan give it a go without all the menacing gentlemen in top coats.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: BBC America is airing this show a couple of weeks behind the UK mothership. In the past, I’ve found the difference in what British and American viewers have seen makes weekly discussion of shows like this more trouble than they’re worth for all involved, so my plan is to revisit the show when the season finishes on BBC America. If you’ve already seen the first few episodes, please don’t include any plot specifics in your comments. Thanks.