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TBTS Reviews: The Hour Series 1

August 29, 2012

The HourI’ve been really into British television lately, and my new obsession is The Hour. It premiered in August 2011, marking the launch of BBC America’s Dramaville, “the home for groundbreaking British drama” and my sole reason for resubscribing to cable.

At only eight episodes, the series is short by American standards, but there is so much story crammed into those eight episodes that you end up not really minding too much. Set in London, 1956, The Hour follows Bel (Romola Garai) and Freddy (Ben Whishaw) as they launch a new one-hour news program on the BBC. Their actions are heavily watched by the Prime Minister’s attachĂ©, who wants the program to toe the line. Thrown into the mix is Hector (Dominic West), the war hero-turned-news frontman who butts heads with Freddy and struggles to find his place on the team. Minor spoilers below…

The Hour is about news programming the way Mad Men is about advertising — it’s interesting to see the nuts-and-bolts of it, but really the job is just there as a backdrop for the relationships. And The Hour is all about relationships: Bel and Freddy, Bel and Hector, Hector and Freddy. The relationships are what keep us watching, episode after episode. Some aspects are expected, but some are quite novel, and it’s refreshing to see a more modern approach to relationships from a show set in the 1950s.

Bel and FreddyBel and Freddy
Bel and Freddy make an interesting pair. We’re never told how they met and became friends, and we’re given only a vague idea of them coming up the journalistic ranks together. Yet it’s obvious from the very beginning that the bond between them is something special and important. They complement each other completely — where Freddy is flighty, Bel is grounded, when Freddy runs wild, Bel reigns him in. They’re the best of friends and completely in love with each other, but it’s not a passionate, romantic love. They’re like an old married couple who have been together for so long they can’t remember ever being apart. They even joke about the children they’ll have someday (Gilbert and Maude), when they live in Lucerne and commute to London daily by plane. There’s an understanding between them that goes beyond words, and you definitely get the sense that they know they’ll end up together one day, no matter who they may chase in the meantime. They are unflinchingly honest with each other; there’s no pretense, no games. It’s very rare to see such a loving yet platonic relationship between a man and a woman on screen.

Bel and HectorBel and Hector
The relationship between Bel and Hector is a little more obvious. The attraction is apparent from the start, and even though he is married, the affair is inevitable. There’s passion, excitement, secrecy, but we all know that this won’t last and it probably won’t end well. Bel seems to see something in Hector, the spark of a better man, and I think Hector is attracted to the version of himself that he is with her. With his wife, there are expectations; she comes from money, and there are rules in her society that must be followed. With Bel, he is free to follow his own conscience. The interesting twist is that Bel and Hector’s wife, Marnie, actually like each other. When Marni confronts Bel about the affair, she tells her that she’s glad Hector finally choose a proper woman (apparently most of his affairs are conducted with silly secretaries who don’t understand he has no intention of leaving his wife). Series 1 ends with Bel calling the relationship off, though we know this is not the end for these two.

Hector and FreddyHector and Freddy
Hector and Freddy get off to a bumpy start. Freddy is resentful that Hector will be the face of The Hour, despite his lack of journalistic experience. Hector is intimidated by Freddy’s knowledge and skill. They clash several times in the first few episodes. Eventually, Hector begins to prove himself, and Freddy begins to respect him. Meanwhile, Hector begins to understand and accept Freddy’s quirks, and admires his independence and freedom. Freddy does as he pleases, damn the consequences, and Hector is quite jealous of that. Matters are complicated when Hector starts having an affair with Bel. It’s clear to Hector that she loves Freddy in a way she will never love him, and she’s different with Freddy — more relaxed, more comfortable. Hector sees himself as not quite measuring up in many ways. The series closes with Hector torn between two worlds, the world of Bel and Freddy and journalistic integrity, and the world of his wife and her family and using his connections to get ahead. While Freddy is solid, Hector is a leaf in the wind, and we’re not quite sure in what direction he’ll eventually blow.

There are lots of intriguing interpersonal relationships at play here. Bel has a sort of father-daughter relationship with Clarence, the head of programming. She has a friend/mentor relationship with Lix, who’s in charge of foreign news. She’s boss but must answer to those above her, include the Prime Minister’s right-hand man. She both admires her mother and fears becoming her. Hector has a strained relationship with his wife and her father. Freddy plays the role of caretaker for his father, but must be taken care of by Bel. And Freddy’s relationship with a young debutante causes repercussions that last throughout the first series.

There is no Don Draper on The Hour. In fact, the only real similarities between the two series are the fact that they’re both period pieces and that both are quite relationship-heavy. The Hour has bits of mystery, intrigue, politics, sex, romance, power struggles and even a murder or two thrown in for good measure. If you like complicated British dramas, this is a show for you.

The Hour Series 1 is available on DVD. Series 2 airs on BBC America in November 2012.

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