2011 was something of a banner year for screenwriter and playwright Abi Morgan. Not only did she have her first continuing drama series, 'The Hour,' premiere on BBC, but she also delivered two high profile screenplays: one for the Margaret Thatcher biopic 'The Iron Lady' and another for the Steve McQueen/Michael Fassbender addiction-drama, 'Shame' (though she's credited as co-writer on that one).
While I appreciated aspects of the performances, I found 'Shame' to be indistinct, far too self-conscious and filled with characters that felt to be missing adequate dimension. Meanwhile, 'The Iron Lady' barely registered as anything more than a hurried, wafer thin examination of a woman whose impact and legacy (positive and negative) could have provided far more interesting material than the surface-level skimming that film provided.
But it was the 1950s newsroom drama, 'The Hour' that this writer felt delivered Morgan's most endearing and enduring characters; ones who not only managed to engage the audience in their efforts of creating a new form of television journalism, but also (and perhaps more importantly) managed to deliver strong, compelling character moments that spoke to the strengths of Morgan as a writer and to the series' ability to offer more than its sometimes-overloaded plotline.
'The Hour' season 2 is built remarkably similar to season 1; the obvious advantage of this being the audience is likely already familiar with the characters, presenting a unique opportunity to get right into the meat of the story. Whereas the first season introduced the connection between floppy-haired paragon of journalistic integrity Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) and his unrequited love interest, and doggedly determined news producer, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), it also established the role of lead anchor, Hector Madden, played with oily charm by the always-entertaining Dominic West.
Along with the introduction of the cast, there was a small crash course in how post-war television journalism was being conceived and produced, and how the stories it covered altered the landscape of what journalism was and would become in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. As interesting as all these elements were, there was also the feeling that the season was a little crowded. For whatever reason, there was an additional Cold War plot involving spies for the Soviet government that brought with it the usual assortment of fedora-clad henchmen, dark cars and conspiracies. For a frequently powerful workplace drama that more often than not hits the bulls eye in terms of smaller, more intimate character moments, this bit of the narrative presented itself as the odd man out. That's not to say the spy elements didn't work; it's just that they felt a tad extraneous considering all the other elements at play. (Well, that and the head-shaking moment when Freddie was directly involved in the death of a rogue agent.)
Whereas spy elements served as the connective tissue to everything else that was going on in the first season, that bit of genre work is now given over to a story of underworld criminals, prostitution rings, pornography and (yes, strange, but true) NATO and nuclear weapons. The majority of this plot stems from an increasingly shady club called El Paradis, the proprietor of which is a man named Raphael Cilenti (Vincent Riotta). The whole thing begins to unravel after Hector is accused of beating a dancer at El Paradis, after a late-night hookup, which then spirals directly into the deep investigative journalism The Hour has become known for.
While this seemingly superfluous plotline occasionally drifts in and out of the season with the sole purpose of placing the major characters where they need to be in order to wring out the most deliciously melodramatic or soap opera-y fare possible, season 2 still manages to instill the storyline with a myriad of smaller character moments that make the season far better than the unnecessary underworld conspiracy plotline would seem to suggest.
For starters, the core cast has had some intriguing new developments in their lives following the end of last season. Most importantly is the way Hector's life is falling apart. Although his involvement with The Hour has made him a household name, Hector is insecure as a journalist, has become increasingly dependent on alcohol and his marriage to Marnie (Oona Chaplin) has eroded due to what we assume are an endless string of one-night stands with various women of ill-repute (not to mention the affair he had with Bel in season 1). Bel, for her part, managed to retain her position at the show, but has only now begun to realize how much she relied upon Freddie. Meanwhile, Freddie managed to fall in love with and marry an irascible French woman, played by Lizzie Brocheré, while taking his leave of the show.
Normally, this would constitute some serious hand wringing and a significant obstacle to the will-they-or-won't-they question regarding Bel and Freddie's feelings for one another. But as the season progresses, it quickly becomes clear that Camille (Brocheré) is intended to be just that: an obstacle. And with that comes the biggest problem of what is, more or less, a very good show. While Morgan manages to get a lot out of her characters in what little time she has, the simple fact of the matter is: There's too much going on in six episodes for every facet to be serviced properly. Elements like the relationship between Freddie and Camille are clearly earmarked as portends of an important development to come later – which only serves to make the inclusion and seeming importance of the relationship something of a sham to begin with. Essentially, the romance has to heat up incredibly fast and then suddenly reverse gears while completely skipping over the events in the middle that make such developments important to the characters and the narrative.
But all is not lost; 'The Hour' season 2 manages to get a lot more right than wrong. In addition to the aforementioned Hector plotline, there is a nice addition and use of wonderful character actor Peter Capaldi ('The Thick of It' and 'In the Loop') as the new head of news, Randall Brown, who shares a heartfelt storyline with Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor) stemming from their shared history. And that is what 'The Hour' basically boils down to: A great drama about journalists and the sacrifices they make for the job they love (which comes at great expense to their personal lives), and a lot of nearly unrelated genre plot elements designed to constantly remind the viewer this is a period drama set in the 1950s. Thankfully, the former significantly outweighs the latter in regard to season 2.
'The Hour' often makes some curious decisions regarding the placement of story elements in the overall narrative, but these missteps are so easy to overlook, considering the wealth of fantastic actors and the many rewarding character moments they all bring to this season and the series as a whole. Season 2 certainly has more energy than season 1, which is a plus in many ways but also requires the plot to revolve around less-than-favorable elements and rely heavily on convenience in order to get where it's going in just six episodes. That's an incredibly small window by network television standards. Heck, it's still a pretty small window by prestige cable-drama standards, so, if anything, the series should be commended for stuffing in so much entertainment into a relatively small package.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Hour' comes as two 50GB discs set in a standard keepcase. The discs will auto play previews from BBC and BBC America; namely, 'Ripper Street' and last year's offering from Barry Levinson, 'Copper.' All previews can be skipped to go directly to the top menu to select "play all" or specific episodes from the season.
With its 1080p AVC-encoded transfer, 'The Hour' has a very nice looking picture that borders on being great in some instances, but then teeters back in others. It's not a completely inconsistent picture, though; it's more along the lines of an image that consistently looks good while occasionally providing flashes of brilliance.
Contrast is very high across both discs. Fine detail is present throughout the series, offering excellent sense of texture in the period-specific clothing and set decoration and the lifelike quality of the actors' faces. In that regard, skin tones always look great (under any light) and have a natural quality to them that suggests great care was taken during filming and the transfer process. Additionally, the sets are dressed magnificently and the image picks up nearly every detail. Whether it is Bel in search of a lead in a seamy neighborhood, or Freddie sitting alone in his flat smoking a cigarette, there is always something to catch the viewers' eye. Meanwhile the wardrobe is a huge standout on this Blu-ray, with all the delightful wardrobe changes that Romola Garai and Oona Chaplin's characters go through benefiting the most from the transfer's bright, vivid use of color.
On the downside, there are occasions where the fine detail does appear to have been dialed back a bit, and the sacrifice is noticeable in the facial detail and clothing textures. But these instances only pop up a few times over the series' six episodes, so the overall effect is a great image downgraded to very good.
Most importantly, though, there is a dreamy quality to a great deal of 'The Hour,' which likely has to do with the production's sensibilities regarding the period elements of the show. It's almost as though the producers want to remind the viewer that this took place more than half a century ago through the cinematography alone. For the most part it works; the deliberate haziness, the way the light cascades in through windows feels more like a memory than a recreation, and much of that is due to how good this image manages to look.
Given the ubiquity of the 5.1 format, a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix might seem like the consumer had been shortchanged in some way. And while the sound on 'The Hour' doesn't exactly showcase the series' delightful score, or use of atmospheric elements in the manner many have become accustomed, it does deliver a mostly adequate mix that manages to focus on the important aspects.
While it's short on some aspects, the sound here does a commendable job with the dialogue – which is certainly the first and most important thing to cross off the list. While the actors are always easy to hear and understand, there are a few occasions where the mix delivers a real sense that there are two people conversing in the room with you. Whether they are nearly touching, or merely sitting across the room from one another, the directionality of the sound and the imaging come together to produce a superb sense of intimacy between the actors and the viewer.
Sure, there are times when the action is centered on El Paradis or in the streets where additional surround sound might have added considerable depth to the mix and subsequently enhanced the feel of the season by home theater standards. But to be honest, even though it would have been nice if the sound had been spread across more channels, this mix manages to sound pretty good for what it offers.
As with most series (especially those that end on a cliffhanger) there's always a question of when and if there will be more. Creator Abi Morgan spoke briefly about how she'd love to write another storyline, but as of this review, there doesn't seem to be any word from the BBC on whether or not 'The Hour' will continue into season 3. With luck that will change, or the audience will be granted a special or something of that ilk that can help answer some of the questions left at the end of season 2. Regardless of whether or not the series continues, though, there will always be two seasons available to the audience on Blu-ray. And while season 2 doesn't have much in the way of extensive special features, it does offer a very good picture and adequate sound that, like the series, will hold up on subsequent viewings. This one comes recommended.