I tend to harp on a lot about structure during my reviews and so it only seems right to say a few words on the structure of my own writing: I’m doing something a little different for this show because I watched a bunch of episodes in marathon and on top of that it will only be a review for some and a preview for most others as the show in question is not set to start airing in the US until late next week. ‘What is the show?’ you ask? ‘Look up,’ I answer. ‘The Hour, what is that?’ you ask. ‘Look down,’ I answer.
The Hour is a new scripted drama from the BBC – which means that it is only of mini-series length by conventional standards – that follows the exploits of three young journalists in 1956 London as they set out to start a revolutionary new news program and end up stumbling into a spy-rich conspiracy. On the surface this may seem a rather unique premise for a television program but it is executed in a way very familiar to a number of different sources. This comparison is obvious and thus it is one that has already been made one million times by one million different reporters and yet it works so well that to not include it for the sake of originality would be a fool’s play, so here we go again: it is essentially Broadcast News as written by James Bond’s Ian Fleming.
While this may sound thrilling the show is actually a glacially paced affair with less than half as much happening in its double length episodes than in those of any other TV drama, with one exception. The other comparison that the media has already made multiple times is that of Mad Men; mainly because both shows are set in a similar period and feature a lot of beautifully besuited men smoking, drinking and being chauvinistic (can one come without the others?). The shows though are actually quite different from one another in terms of content, though their pacing may be the same. Yes, if The Hour was to be made by an American TV network it would have been AMC, but if the comparison was to be made by me it would have been with another of their IP’s, Rubicon. Of course no-one watched that show, and so no one will understand the relevance of that statement, so Brooks and Bond it is.
The triangular relationship echoes exactly the one in James L. Brook’s seminal satire with the female producer torn between her over-intellectual old friend and the new Adonis-like, idiotic that has been hired to anchor; that is at least true for the first few episodes but given the luxury of time this storyline does manage somewhat to come into its own as the characters grow out of the moulds set by their predecessors. Though after four hours – and the episodes do run a solid hour, which means at this stage the show has had twice as much time as Broadcast ever got – I honestly can’t say that they have actually outgrown the moulds, or moved into material that the movie characters couldn’t cover. The aforementioned pacing is at the heart of this problem; the slowness both requires and allows for a depth of character that is present in the likes of Mad Men but is missing here; the time is not used effectively because they have so much of it.
The espionage sections however are more problematic, in the sense that they get less and less interesting as the show progresses and to be honest the actual conspiracy was never all that compelling in the first place – in fact I believe I may have figured it all out midway through episode three – but seeing the pieces move together is hypnotic enough on its own to keep you entertained. Intellectually speaking they do make a great addition: the correlation between chasing a case and constructing a conspiracy theory is a strong one, as is the idea of showing the effect of Cold-War era paranoia on the news industry of the nineteen fifties; the times when the disparate elements of the show combine are its best, but these are too few and far between to ever be truly satisfying.
Though its meanings aren’t the period setting itself is consistently perfect in its evocation; the show really looks, feels and sounds as if it were set in the era. A lot of the time when TV tries to go back into the past it is forced, there are lots of ‘Look at this Anachronism’ moments where a difference is highlighted for effect and then a lot of other times where the writers simply assume that society would have worked exactly the same back then and write accordingly; The Hour manages to escape both by delivering a subtle, natural trip back through time; a true feat of film-making.
However the specific content that they have chosen to depict feels a tad too relevant and this convenience seems contrived. I mean, a revolution in Egypt, Spies speaking Arabic, phone taps in British media? Sure some of this could be written of as timeless content or coincidence but I don’t believe that is the case, it seems clear to me that the writers are attempting to make a modern point with these events and while this is admirable their execution of it only serves to drag me out of the world that they have so painstakingly created and back into my own, which is a shame.
This is where the pacing twists back into a pro; this world is so well made in the moment that I simply find myself living in it and in life one doesn’t much mind the lack of character development, the banality of the big bad or the contextual relevance, in fact we oft savour them. So though it may be slow, this show will grow on you if you let it,not only that it will grow around you too; and for me that is the mark of great storytelling, the only structure that really matters.