Imitation is the sincerest form of television, but usually the shows being imitated are the biggest of hits. The thinking, after all, is that your clone won’t get ratings as high as “Friends” or “CSI” or “Lost,” but if you copy a show with a big enough base, the fall-off will lead to acceptable ratings. For some reason, though, this season ABC and NBC – two broadcast networks who are still, in theory, in the business of trying to get the biggest audiences possible for their shows – have scheduled a pair of new dramas (“Pan Am” for ABC, “The Playboy Club” for NBC) both very reminiscent of AMC’s “Mad Men,”whose ratings would nonetheless have gotten it canceled by week 3 on a network.
“Mad Men” is an incredible show, and it’s easy to understand why the big broadcasters might have some cable envy. But even if “Pan Am” has some promise (“The Playboy Club,” much less so), it’s hard to imagine either rookie succeeding commercially when they debut next month. If anyone should be trying out a drama set close to the “Mad Men” era, it should be a cable network even lower on the food chain than AMC, and/or the British.
And BBC America is about to prove this point with tomorrow’s 10 p.m. debut of “The Hour,” a winning new drama set only a few years before Don Draper would get a new secretary named Peggy Olsen.
Now, “Mad Men” is only one of the many influences on “The Hour,” which also mashes up heavy elements of Ian Fleming, “Broadcast News” and even another (even lower-rated) AMC series, “Rubicon.”
The year is 1956, and the BBC is preparing to launch a new TV newsmagazine called “The Hour,” one that all involved hope will go deeper and leave more of an impression than the staid, tedious shows where brilliant, cocky producer Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, from the 2008 “Brideshead Revisited”) feels he’s wasting his abundant talents. Freddie expects to be put in charge of “The Hour,” but the job instead goes to his best friend (and unrequited crush), the equally brilliant (and far more politically savvy) Bel Rowley (Romola Garai from “Atonement”) while he has to take a junior position. Worse, the show’s anchorman is Hector Madden (Dominic West from “The Wire”), a pretty face with the proper bloodlines, who seems to be in way over his head – and yet still draws Bel’s eye in a way that gawky, pugnacious Freddie never has.
And just as this new show is preparing to debut, a series of murders occur that involve crossword puzzles and Soviet spies, while the prime minister of Egypt risks war with Britain by seizing control of the Suez Canal.
That’s a lot to pack into six hours of television (the Brits love their short seasons), and the first of those hours feels very much like the debut of “The Wire” in that it throws you waist-deep into unfamiliar waters and assumes you’ll be able to float until things make sense within a week or two. But despite the presence of West (working in his native accent), and creator Abi Morgan’s resume of harrowing, politically-tinged dramas (“Sex Traffic,” “Tsunami: The Aftermath”), “The Hour” is surprisingly light on its feet.
Morgan described the series to me as “much more of an entertainment piece than I”ve ever written before,” and it turns out she’s quite good at this entertainment thing.
Yes, the Freddie/Bel/Hector dynamic is cribbed unapologetically from “Broadcast News” – where Holly Hunter also couldn’t resist going for the substance-light guy with good camera presence over her clever but less polished soulmate – but the characters take on their own lives after a while, and Morgan has three splendid performers to work with.
West does his damndest to out-Gregory Peck that Jon Hamm fellow (imagine McNulty with better breeding and impulse control, but the same command of a room and the ladies). Whishaw finds that sweet spot where Freddie gets to be abrasive and yet sympathetic. And Garai’s Bel is so burning with intelligence and sex appeal that I found myself doing a deep analysis of her IMDb profile afterwards to figure out how she hasn’t become a big star on our shores yet. (I blame “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.”)
There’s a risk that piling so many styles and influences on top of each other would have made “The Hour” a mess, but the romantic comedy flows neatly into the discussion of how the Suez crisis signaled the end of the British empire, and in turn to discussions of TV news ethics, women’s roles in this era (even though Bel is Freddie’s boss, he still calls her “Moneypenny,” when they role-play about James Bond) and the rest.
The espionage angle – with Freddie going deeper and deeper into those murders, at risk to both his show and his life – is the one area I’m uncertain about. I’ve seen four of the six episodes, and while the spy story progresses and slowly begins to tie into other issues at the program, it still doesn’t seem entirely necessary. And it’s very tough to stick the landing on this sort of thing, as viewers of “Rubicon” (a show which also loved its crosswords) found out right before AMC canceled it.
While “The Hour” doesn’t seem to fetishize its period details in the same way “Mad Men” does, it’s no less effective at recreating the look and feel of that bygone era. And where “Mad Men” takes place at a time when America is ascendant, “The Hour” begins just as England is about to take a mighty tumble. So even as the news program begins to click and Bel gets to show that a woman can more than handle this job, there’s also a tremendous sense of loss – along with a question of whether what’s about to be lost (the U.K.’s standing and influence) is worth more than what’s being gained (social progress).
At one point during his investigation, Freddie meets a woman who says she likes “The Hour,” but “it makes the world seem most unbearably real.”
That complicated relationship between wanting to know the truth about the world – and ourselves – and wanting to cling to long-held illusions about same is great fodder for drama. I don’t know that “The Hour” is great drama yet (Morgan has plans for additional series if the real-life BBC is interested), but it kept me far more engrossed than pretty much any drama the broadcast networks are going to start debuting in September – including the other shows about the transformative moment when the ’50s started to become the ’60s.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: As with all foreign series that don’t air day-and-date in the U.S., I’m going to ask those of you who’ve seen multiple episodes to respect my spoiler policy, explained in detail at the old blog. The short version: if it hasn’t aired in the U.S. yet, it’s considered a spoiler here. You can say whether you’ve liked the episodes that have already aired in the U.K., but no plot details of any kind (or allusions to same).
I’m undecided whether to do weekly posts on this show, as “Doctor Who” discussion often became more trouble than it was worth before BBC America went day-and-date, and that show is far less serialized than “The Hour.” But at the very least I’ll be posting my Abi Morgan interview later today or early tomorrow, a talkback post after tomorrow’s premiere, and something after the finale airs here in September.