When the atmospheric import "The Hour" returns for Season 2 (Wednesday, November 28 at 9 p.m. EST on BBC America), much has changed and yet so much of it feels familiar.
It's late 1957, almost a year after turmoil shook the set of "The Hour," a fictional BBC news program full of hard-working, hard-living staffers eager to shake up stuffy post-war Britain.
The capable producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is still in charge, but her right-hand man and best friend, crusading reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), has been traveling -- in part to work through his crush on Bel -- and he returns from his long trip a changed man. And if the constant nightclubbing and philandering of her distracted star anchor, Hector Madden (Dominic West), wasn't enough of a problem, Bel also has to contend with an enigmatic new boss, Randall Brown (Peter Capaldi).
Yet, as was the case with the first season of this handsome, smartly calibrated drama, there's a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to the central stories that give them a contemporary edge. Season 2 of "The Hour" was written and shot well before the BBC's current troubles erupted, but the parallels are hard to ignore. In the new season of "The Hour," Hector's growing celebrity allows him all sorts of naughty opportunities involving nightclubs, alcohol and showgirls -- trouble that he enthusiastically embraces until his gilded life runs into serious difficulties.
"It's about a time when even the news was starting to make celebrities of men and the way we're obsessed with celebrity now," creator Abi Morgan said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
"If you were in D Day, if you were Hector, if you got a chance, you took that chance and had a good time," West said. "And also you're burying your trauma of the war."
Morgan and stars West and Garai were interviewed by Huffington Post TV well before the Jimmy Savile scandal broke and cast doubt on the BBC's ability to root out wrongdoing within its ranks. (Savile, a popular host, reportedly molested hundreds of young people while on the BBC payroll.) And even though Hector is a far different man than Savile -- the "Hour" host is led astray by his complacency and his zest for living, not by predatory tendencies -- there's no doubt that the intersection of celebrity, institutional blindness and crime depicted in "The Hour" is more timely than ever.
Lest you think you're in for a grim examination of the machinations of power and image, think again. Part of "The Hour's" undeniable charm is its ability to create a lush, inviting world; the fabrics, the colors, the clubs and the sets have a tactile, sensual feel.
The series does ask interesting questions about class, gender and race: Bel is a young woman in a man's world and there's a subplot about the racism that greeted Caribbean immigrants in the '50s. But the show's well-drawn characters generally enjoy reveling in their competitive tendencies, and the drama's examinations of privilege and corruption often take place within the smoky confines of inviting Soho clubs or in wood-paneled offices that reek of tradition and elegance.
In short, the show's major achievement might be in the way its flawed yet fetching characters prove, in the aggregate, that a free press isn't just good for society, it also can be kind of sexy.
"In the last year the press has been so vilified -- 'journalist' has become a dirty word," Morgan noted. "I still think there are those journalists who are brilliant and who are still fighting to be seen and heard and hold on to their dignity in a profession which has been kicked in the nuts, really."
Bel's program isn't in that desperate a state as Season 2 begins; "The Hour" has been muddling along but, even in Bel's own opinion, it hasn't been doing its most stellar work. Freddie's been missed, Hector can't be found half the time and the program faces competition in the form of a news program from ITV, an upstart network designed to give the venerable BBC a run for its money.
The dynamics among "The Hour's" staff have changed as well: Bel and Hector had an affair in the first season, but now, as Morgan puts it, "she knows what he's like," and these days, they're merely friends and colleagues. Bel, who is "in a constant state of rejection" of her long-standing love for Freddy, according to Garai, is also distracted by the attention of Bill Kendall (Tom Burke), an ITV executive.
"It's the classic case of a high-achieving person seeing another high-achieving person as being a threat, but also, she could also only be with someone with that status, because anyone else she would ignore or crush or find boring," Garai said. Kendall is also "somebody who actually says, 'I like you and I want to be with you' as opposed to someone who says, 'I like you but I can't say it.' That is quite a shift for Bel."
Perhaps the most interesting new dynamic is introduced by Brown; Capaldi's brilliant, understated performance (quite a shift from his role as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker of "The Thick of It") is fantastically effective and one of the highlights of the new season.
As Morgan said, the new Head of News is "much more contained, much more eccentric" than the team's previous boss, and his secretive methods keep everyone guessing. Even better: He has a connection to veteran foreign reporter Lix Storm, which, according to Morgan, gives the wonderful Anna Chancellor more to do this season.
"There's a great slow burn about their relationship and their mutual past," Morgan noted.
Overall, the second season of "The Hour" has worked out some of the kinks of the first season, which featured a spy/government plot that occasionally felt clunky or grafted on from a different show. This season's overarching plot, which has the staff digging into the crime syndicates of Soho, is more smoothly integrated, arising as it does from Hector's carousing lifestyle.
"The Hour" has some pacing issues -- there are sludgy patches that could use a bit more zip and energy -- but overall, the show creates a delectable, specific world that's very easy to glide into and inhabit. Shows that depict rebellions against powerful elites don't usually have so much chemistry and atmosphere, but "The Hour" proves that serious questions can have alluring packaging. The six-episode season necessarily limits "The Hour's" ambition, but it's both intelligent and diverting while it lasts.
"What's really interesting about the series, which is about social change and political change, is that it's also really about personal change," Garai says.
And nobody wants change more than the upper-class misfit Hector, who, underneath his expensive suit, nurtures serious ambitions of his own.
"In the first season, I always felt he was of the pre-war or the immediately post-war ruling class or establishment, and he's now hanging with people who didn't fight the war and who are trying to create something new," said West (who regretfully turned down a role in the similarly complex "Game of Thrones"). "I always thought what was cool about him was that he was trying to straddle the two worlds and was not too fazed by the modern world ... Hector's having to deal with this change where [war veterans] who risked their lives and risked their friends' lives are having to deal with a world where people are going, 'Fuck you, we don't care.'"
"The Hour" Season 2 premieres Wednesday, November 28 at 9 p.m. EST on BBC America.
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