The Hour reviewed: Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, and Dominic West in a Mad Men­-like drama set at the BBC…

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Aug. 16 2011 5:55 PM

The Hour

Kind of like Mad Men, except at the BBC in 1956.

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Ben Whishaw in The Hour

The Hour (BBC America, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), a totally OK hourlong drama, is set at the BBC in 1956, and amounts to Mad Men-sterpiece Theatre. The comparison to the AMC hit is, if slightly unfair, obligatory, owing to the shows' shared thematic concerns and period stylings. These include the depiction of media businesses in their embryonic phases, the consideration of gender bias, the retrospective condemnation of other societal wrongs, and the valorization of hustling rogues—the similarities end regarding tar content and percentage of alcohol by volume.

Ben Whishaw—whom you last saw wasting away again in Consumptionville as a fine John Keats in Bright Star—plays Freddie Lyons, who never knots his necktie properly. It's always pulled loose and an inch low to accommodate a righteously throbbing Adam's apple and to suggest an angry young man's messy urgency. At the start of the series, Freddie produces newsreels. Because he's fed up with covering society-page frippery at the expense of giving space to global politics, we know that he's serious. Because he believes the newsreel itself to be an outmoded format, we know that he's a visionary. And because of the way he spars with his colleague Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), we know he's in L-U-V, even if his pursuit of Truth has a certain monastic quality.

Freddie and Bel take new jobs creating a weekly show called The Hour, a title somehow more portentous (if less immediate) than 60 Minutes. The frontman of the operation is Hector Madden (Dominic West, The Wire), who really isn't good for anything but reading the teleprompter. But the teleprompter hasn't been invented yet, so he reads from his notes—haltingly, smirking into the wrong camera—while England addresses discrimination against immigrants and sails toward a crisis in the Suez Canal.

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The Hour comes billed as "an edge-of-your-seat spy thriller," which isn't right. It's cozier and slower and airier than that, more of an arm-of-your-sofa spy thriller. You see the espionage coming—and greet it with a cheery nod—early in the first episode, when series creator Abi Morgan matches shots of disparate characters working crossword puzzles. One of these is an academic who is connected, somehow, with a female friend of Freddie's—a posh 21-year-old who, chafing at the life laid out for her, wears her opera gloves as if they were manacles. Shortly, the prof takes a knife to the throat, delivered by a trench-coated enigma with an eerily pallid, oddly placid baby face.

In between Freddie's earnest raking of muck and his febrile attempts to shape his struggling show into something coherent, he's on the case of the murder, soon learning that MI6 has been to visit the prof's corpse. But as a thriller, The Hour fails to thrum. Freddie stumbles upon clues with an ease that prevents the pot from coming to a boil. He's not sleuthing so much as he's profiting from ridiculous coincidences that the screenwriters have drafted for him. All too conveniently, in a moment of hurry, he pockets a loose family photo of the victim from the guy's desk and then, at a nearby newsstand, inspired by the sight of a pack of the dead man's brand of cigarettes, shows the picture to the news agent, who provides the next clue. The childlike mildness of the investigation seems deliberate, as if the producers want to keep things light and just stimulating enough to rate as entertainment. Or as if, unsure of how to braid the mystery strand of The Hour with its other threads, they settled on delivering a Cold War aura.

Perhaps it's best to consider The Hour as a kind of retro Broadcast News that is most alive when Freddie and Bel banter like Beatrice and Benedick and especially when getting inside of Hector's talking head. As endearingly vain anchormen go, he's the equal of William Hurt's Tom Grunick and perhaps even Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy. Hector is, correctly, sure that he's a subpar newsman and a superlative charmer, and West gets him almost imperceptibly vibrating with insecurity behind his perfect smile, and the insecurity is kind of charismatic, too. Now here is something to get you to the edge of your seat. Lean forward and think of England.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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