TV Review: Strong Cast Keeps BBC America’s ‘The Hour’ Fresh

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CHICAGOBBC America’s “The Hour,” debuting tomorrow night, August 17th, 2011, is a well-produced, well-acted, well-conceived piece that’s just…well. It’s a great piece of drama to use as an example as to how quality television is more than just the sum of its parts. There are some great parts here but they never coalesce into an interesting whole. It’s a program that just barely falls short of its admittedly-high goals. TV Rating: 3.5/5.0
TV Rating: 3.5/5.0

Compared internationally to AMC’s hit “Mad Men” — mostly due to time period, the attention to detail of the production, and a high cigarette budget — “The Hour” details the birth of the televised news media in the United Kingdom in the mid-’50s. While that may seem like a fascinating-enough subject for a drama, the BBC program throws a love triangle and even a murder/conspiracy arc into the six-episode series. It may seem like enough activity to foster audience interest but it’s actually much drier than its plot description, too often turning its characters into expository mouthpieces than three-dimensional beings.

The Hour
The Hour
Photo credit: BBC America

The central trio of “The Hour” includes the cynical-but-ambitious journalist Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw of “Bright Star”), gorgeous producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai of “Atonement”), and charismatic anchorman Hector Madden (Dominic West of “The Wire”). Freddie is our central protagonist, a man disgusted by covering socialite parties for newsreel footage and someone who sees the importance of bringing the changing face of the world to the people through the growing medium of television. He can’t stand his spineless superiors and his anger fuels his move to the titular program, a new show about to debut called “The Hour.”

The Hour
The Hour
Photo credit: BBC America

Producing the program is the object of Freddie’s affection, the lovely Bel. Not surprisingly, in a twist that will remind film fans of the great “Broadcast News,” smooth-talking Hector takes to his gorgeous new showrunner as well. All three characters have a tumultuous time as “The Hour” gets off the ground as Freddie pushes boundaries, Bel tries to keep her job, and Hector hides insecurities of his own.

Meanwhile, while Freddie shoots another mindless debutante event, someone is being killed in a London tube station. “The Hour” uses the mystery to illustrate the importance of the growing TV news industry — without it, these things would stay underground. Over the six episodes, the mystery, the love triangle, and the professional tale of the most important news source of the last century come together.

Clearly, “The Hour” has ambition in its time period alone. Was there a more important one to the culture than the late-’50s? Arguably not and the writers and producers of the program recognize that in a remarkably self-conscious way. Largely through Freddie’s dialogue, “The Hour” feels like it’s constantly reminding the viewer of its own importance. It doesn’t breathe like the best programming of this variety and the characters feel more like mouthpieces for writers than living, breathing people. The dialogue regularly feels more forced then genuine.

It’s not through any lack of effort on the part of the cast. Whishaw has been an interesting young actor for a few years now and he’s well-cast in that he gives Freddie an intriguing combination of righteous indignation and low self-worth. He’ll tell you about the changing political scene but not tell Bel he loves her. Meanwhile, Garai and West are both charismatic actors who find ways to make their characters fresh enough to keep the viewer engaged.

And that’s the key to “The Hour.” The production values, the cast, the subject matter — they all keep the viewer interested even as the dialogue and the plotting disappoint.

“The Hour” stars Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, and Dominic West. It premieres on BBC America on Wednesday, August 17th, 2011 at 9pm CST and airs for six weeks. content director Brian Tallerico

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