How the BBC show succeeds where its American counterpart fails
It's not a fashionable opinion in the critical world, but I've never been able to embrace Mad Men. I tried the first five episodes of season one. But I found myself fidgety and distracted by the show's air of remove from everything, whether it's Don Draper's mad dash from his own identity or the ad accounts and campaigns that act as metaphors for social issues while keeping the characters at a distance from them, and couldn't bring myself to continue. When Daniel Mendelsohn blasted Mad Men in the New York Review of Books earlier this year as "a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical 'issues' [that cycles through] successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination," I felt a flash of outlaw sympathy.
The unfortunate coronation of Mad Men as the '60s show to end all '60s shows obscures an important fact. While Matthew Weiner and AMC may have kickstarted the craze for television about the late '50s and the early '60s, that doesn't mean other artists can't play with the formula and find ways to improve it. And BBC's The Hour, arriving on BBC America at 10 tonight, lays down a marker. Set in a BBC studio in 1956 where the staff of a new news magazine program are struggling to make their mark in the face of government pressure to sit on important stories, The Hour is alternately ferocious and tender, and refreshingly clear-eyed about the interactions between gender and class.
The setting helps tremendously in highlighting these issues. In an early broadcast, anchor Hector Madden (The Wire's Dominic West, in his triumphant return to television) flubs the framing of an investigative piece the up-jumped working-class reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) did about the difficulty West Indian immigrants have finding housing in London: He ends the segment with a depressing reaffirmation that in London "If you're white, you're alright." The cast may be all-white, but they're aware of the problems of people who don't share their country of origin or skin tone. Later, their producer, Bel Rowley (an unexpectedly tremendous Romola Garai), kills an interview Lyon gets with a grieving Cabinet minister about a bill to abolish hanging in favor of a live interview Madden does with the Egyptian ambassador to the U.K. after Egypt seizes control of the Suez Canal, while Lyon begins an investigation into the mysterious death of an academic. The compromises Bel has to make are real, and not just because the stories have real impacts. Because the BBC operated under a Royal Charter, and because in 1956, the network was a year into its competition with the newly-created independent competitor ITV, the approval of high government officials wasn't an immaterial concern, and Bel is doubly under pressure as a woman producer.
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There's a real virtue to the fact that the story begins with Bel in a position of power, rather than simply charting her upward trajectory. She can stumble as well as rise, at one point lecturing the show's secretary not to do little extras for the men on the show because "do you want to be taken seriously? Or forever be some stupid little marionette forever fluttering on the arm of every good-looking man in the BBC? First rule, don't make tea." While she has a male mentor in the BBC director of news, Bel has decision-making authority over Hector and Freddie, an old friend with whom she's long plotted a new kind of television show, only to beat him to the job of producer while he's stuck covering domestic news. "They're humoring you," Freddie lashes out at Bel when he finds out she's got the job. "They don't want a woman. A woman is difficult, hysterical. And you can never really find one who'll ever stay. Another couple of years and you'll probably want a baby." He doesn't actually believe any of it, but that doesn't mean he won't use her insecurities to hurt her.