THE HOUR (BBC America) Premiere Review

THE HOUR Season 1 Episode 1 – BBC America’s new six-part miniseries, The Hour, has been referred to as the British answer to Mad Men, but from the very first episode it’s clear that such a comparison sells both shows short. They are each set in times of great social and political upheaval in their respective countries, but where the American Mad Men presents change with a palette of primary colors, The Hour is a world of very British blues and grays, only occasional punctuated by a splash of red or white.

The story centers around the friendship between Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), a beautiful, modern woman who has risen up the ranks of the male-dominated BBC to become the producer of a nightly news program (or programme, as the British would say) called “The Hour,” and her long-time partner Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a skinny, brilliant reporter who longs for a juicier story than the debut of another season of debutantes. That friendship will be tested, however, when Bel becomes Freddie’s boss; how much will he cling to his progressive ideals when he has to answer to a woman?

Of course, Freddie also loves Bel in a way that’s not entirely platonic, which turns their duo into a triangle when Hector Madden (Dominic West) joins the team as the charming, handsome anchor of “The Hour.” Bel, who tends to fall for unavailable men, is instantly attracted to the married Hector, something that’s sure to fuel a lot of sex and probably a few tears.

But if I’ve made this seem like some sort of period soap opera, then I’ve done The Hour an injustice. It’s so much more. Everyone’s heard the story of the Red Scare in America in the 50’s, but on the other side of the pond, the British had their own paranoia and conspiracy theories. At the heart of the show is the mysterious death of a university professor who took quite a few secrets to his grave. The puzzle is brought to Freddie’s attention by an old childhood friend, an unstable debutante who we’re led to believe hangs herself in a hotel bathroom by the end of the first episode.

All of this sets up a fascinating look into post-WWII British culture. With the Empire in decline, we see the old guard desperately clinging to the glories of the past: the niceties of society, the hierarchy, the preservation of the class system. But it will be people like Bel and Freddie who push the country towards a future where women can lead the country (Margaret Thatcher) and the Royal family is less of an institution and more of a punchline.

The Hour is gritty, but it doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. Unlike Mad Men, it doesn’t try to sell us on the glamor (or glamour) of its time period. Rather, it asks us to dig deeper and question everything we thought we knew. And I, for one, love to see that on “the telly.”

What did you think of the episode? Do you think Bel returns Freddie’s feelings? Let me know below!