“The Hour" 9 tonight, BBC America
If you get a kick out of watching lords and ladies flirt while fox hunting, then stick with “Downton Abbey."
But if you’re looking for British period drama that’ll get your pulse going and your mind racing, then turn to BBC America’s “The Hour," which returns for a six-episode second season tonight. (It will be preceded by a marathon showing of the first season.)
Created by the celebrated playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady," “Shame"), “The Hour" is a smart, well-written, and brilliantly acted drama about politics, espionage, murder, sex, racism, and war in 1950s Britain as seen through the eyes of TV newsmen and women.
Romola Garai (“Atonement," “Emma"), “The Wire’s" Dominic West, and Ben Whishaw, who stole the show as the new Q in “Skyfall," star as pioneering BBC journalists who help create one of the first independent news shows on TV.
Called “The Hour," the weekly newsmagazine is a controversial, if not dangerous, proposition in an era when the press is still under the thumb of a government that prefers to see the BBC as its own propaganda mill.
Whishaw is terrific as tenacious reporter Freddie Lyon. The ultimate outsider, he’s a nebbish perpetual adolescent from a lower-middle-class family trying to survive in a world ruled by private-school-educated media elites. He’s also hopelessly in love with news producer Bel Rowley (Garai), a seductive, slick intellectual. The pair have the perfect screen palaver, a Bogie-and-Hepburn back-and-forth that’s a delight to watch.
West plays the newsmagazine’s square-jawed anchor, Hector Madden, an upper-class war hero who makes the girls swoon wherever he goes.
Set in 1956 amid the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis, the first season was framed by a diabolically twisty spy yarn. Led by their gentle, principled boss, Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser), the trio found dirty secrets in Britain’s intelligence services.
They also discovered, too late, that Clarence was a KGB agent who planned to use the show as a subversive weapon.
The second season opens nine months later. “The Hour" is no longer unique: BBC’s rival, ITV, has an edgy news show of its own. Clarence, now in prison, has been replaced by the enigmatic Randall Brown (Peter Capaldi), a George Orwell-quoting obsessive-compulsive intent on bringing the avant-garde to TV.
The first two episodes set up the season’s new habitat: Instead of focusing on international politics, the series takes on London’s organized crime families and the lucrative private clubs, after-hour joints, and sleazy sex parlors they run. It’s too early to tell whether the new season will have the intelligent plotting, tense pacing, and superb cohesion Morgan and her actors brought to the first. But it’s off to a good start.