‘The Hour’ Returns with a New Focus on the Pitfalls of Celebrity

When The Hour premiered on BBC America last fall, it was pitched to as to an audience feeling the Mad Men-shaped hole in their season. Two American shows, ABC’s Pan Am and NBC’s The Playboy Club, had already tried and failed to fill that hole, leaving discerning viewers suspicious of the BBC’s offering. But The Hour proved smart and engaging. Opening in a London TV newsroom as the 1956 Suez Crisis is unfolding and Soviet-British tensions are high, Season One of The Hour featured a distinctly plot-driven structure that unfolded with impressive economy over its six episodes.

That plot — which persists into the second season, premiering 28 November on BBCA — centers on an uneven love triangle that fondly recalled 1987’s Broadcast News, even as it was different and, frankly, better. A very classy Romola Garai plays the show’s dedicated producer, Bel, working with her longtime friend, the nervy newshound Freddie (Ben Wishaw), and ambitious show presenter Hector (Dominic West, in a role that showcased his charisma in a way that his five seasons on The Wire never did).

At the end of the first season, their plucky little news program had managed to buck the government’s censorial grip in one triumphant last show — and a Soviet spy plot had been unraveled. Even as Bel and Freddy’s journalistic integrity cost them their jobs, her enjoyably torrid affair with Hector ended abruptly.

That first season’s story arc of political intrigue and espionage necessarily raised the stakes for the characters, but its genre conventions were never as compelling as the development of those characters and their increasingly complicated dynamics. I am glad to say, then, that Season Two brings back all but one of the major characters, including the affably bumbling Isaac (Joshua McGuire), who was first pulled along as Freddie’s assistant (he has since taken up playwriting), and bubbly Sissy (Lisa Greenwood), the secretary who was saved from the tedium of the typing pool last season (she’s still with the Nigerian doctor fellow she met on the dance floor last season).

It’s Bel we see first this season, rehired at the news show. She’s clacking away at some last-minute copy, wearing the eyeglasses she nearly always refused to wear last year. “These last nine months have been an exercise in maintaining the direction and morale of ‘The Hour,’” she remarks to the new head of news, Randall (Peter Capaldi). If her vision of the show sounds slightly less ambitious than it once was, a partial explanation may lie in Freddie’s continued absence and Hector’s slide into a glaze of celebrity and its attendant debauchery: flashbulbs and autograph requests accompany him now, and his smile has become more leering than genuine.

These changes have affected the rest of the staff as well. “I’m old, I’ve made mistakes,” says Lix (Anna Chancellor), head of the foreign news desk. She continues as she and Bel pause before the mirrors in the ladies’: “But you? Too pretty. Don’t let it go to waste. Run away for too long and they stop loving your back.” But Bel seems rather inclined to do just that. Randall has only disappointed notes to give her, and ITV’s rival news show is winning more accolades and wooing Hector with promises of a larger salary and more luxurious perks.

In an effort to right the program’s course, Randall summons Freddie back from his travels, and the newsroom begins to crackle noticeably again. It’s only hours before Freddie is upstaging Hector at a news conference, upsetting the Whitehall apple cart with key questions about the government’s neglect of rising local law-breaking — a detail that will dovetail with a rash of Soho sex crimes.

With this, Season Two efficiently reveals the strands of its story arc, both the Soho crimes and Hector’s overindulgence at the seedy El Paradis club leading toward a larger scandal, indicated by an early fade-to-black as Hector gazes at dancing showgirls in the smoke-filled club. At the same time, the show introduces a looming international plot, the question of nuclear proliferation — even as we see that the juiciest moments of The Hour’s second season will hang on all the unfinished business among the three leads.

Bel is early on wavering between wanting to reprimand Freddie as usual and wanting to accept all of his old intimations: he has returned from his travels bearded and much better dressed, as well as noticeably more self-assured. He covered politics for the Village Voice for a time, he tells Bel, and also read Sartre, Ginsberg, and Kerouac. When he remarks that he felt like just another nobody in America, “that country where everybody thinks they have a right to be a somebody,” we guess that he’s found a new sort of drive. And then there’s that small crease between Bel’s eyes, despite her professional demeanor toward Hector, once her lover and now distressingly debauched. Also delicious is Lix’s subtle reaction to Randall’s neatnik tics, a reaction suggesting more about their past together at the BBC’s Paris news bureau than even their antagonistic repartee.

The Hour‘s visual composition remains evocative as well, recalling the light and shadow of a Hopper painting, or perhaps, as the inevitable comparison goes, a Mad Men episode. Its compositions tell stories without a word, from the rain spattered on car windows in an alley as a soft blonde showgirl pouts, red-lipped, at her sugar daddy to the darkening hall of an office after hours, punctuated by the emerald shimmer of Bel’s evening frock.

We also glimpse the new frustrations felt by Hector’s wife Marnie (Oona Castilla Chaplin): embarking on her own career on an ITV cookery program, she’s confined by the kitchen’s dismal palette of pink and lavender while she whisks away at a garish yellow Hollandaise sauce. Still passive-aggressively docile, Marnie is developing beyond the cardboard cutout she played in the first season, and I’m looking forward to it. She’s one element in the rich vein of personalities that The Hour only began to mine in its first season, and one of the many reasons the second season is looking very good indeed.

RATING 8 / 10