I hear from a lot of TV viewers who really want to like “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama about the media, integrity, and the Gordian knot of love. But while they’re drawn to a drama about TV journalism, they complain that the “Newsroom” characters are preternaturally intelligent, overly self-important, and emotionally adolescent. The usual Sorkin rumpus. I enjoy the show, for Sorkin’s passionate treatment of timely issues, and for Jeff Daniels’s flamboyant performance, but I can’t argue with those who reject the kit because of the kaboodle.
Cut to: BBC America’s “The Hour,” the British series that returns for a second season of six episodes on Wednesday night at 9. This is also a drama about the news business, the challenges of integrity, and love’s near misses and thunderclaps, but it’s not marred by any of Sorkin’s excesses. Set at a weekly BBC newsmagazine in the 1950s called “The Hour,” it’s a subtle intertwining of journalists’ professional struggles, their personal lives, and the thorny social issues that envelope them, and I can’t recommend it enough. “The Hour” is not “Breaking Bad” good, or “Mad Men” good, but it’s close.
The first season was a charmer, as the office love triangle between Bel (Romola Garai), Freddie (Ben Whishaw), and Hector (Dominic West from “The Wire”) played out like a British “Broadcast News.” But ultimately some of the spy twists were forced, as producer Bel, anchor Hector, and get-the-story-at-all-costs reporter Freddie got tangled up with the Suez Crisis. The second season, based on a preview of the first two episodes, is better, as nuclear armament, pornography, and racism more naturally emerge in tandem with the personal conflicts. The longing between Freddie and Bel has shifted in new ways, while Hector has slid into alcoholism and adultery. Accusations of abuse against the troubled Hector form an important part of this season’s plotline.
The fact that “The Hour” is a period piece, set long before the child-abuse scandals that currently plague the real BBC, adds more than an exquisite surface. Like “Mad Men,” the show is inviting us to look at what has changed in the past half-century, and what hasn’t. On “The Hour,” what hasn’t changed is the tightrope walk reporters perform when befriending sources, the difference between what viewers want to watch and what is genuinely newsworthy, the need to resist government PR in order to get at the truth, and so many other journalistic, ethical concerns. They are the same issues Sorkin addresses in “The Newsroom,” but here they exist without the added complications of a 24-hour news cycle. Of course, what has changed, among many other things, is the constant presence of cigarettes in the workplace.
The show is from Abi Morgan, who wrote the screenplay for “The Iron Lady.” Morgan fills her show with powerful women, in the cases of Bel and foreign reporter Lix (Anna Chancellor), and with women hungering for more than homemaking, in the case of Hector’s wife, Marnie (Oona Chaplin), who is tired of waiting for her husband to stop his wandering ways. And Morgan also delivers a few fascinating men in addition to Freddie and Hector, including a new head of news named Randall, played by the extraordinary Peter Capaldi. Randall has a grim Zen demeanor that angers some colleagues, but he may just be a managerial genius as he toys with the newsroom employees in an effort to motivate them. He and Lix have a past that will unfold as the season develops.
Thankfully, Bel and Freddie remain at the center of the series. They have one of the most appealing bonds on TV right now. They are best friends, with witty inside jokes and a common understanding of news, and even their romantic tensions can’t undermine the strength of their bond. They are the backbone of their BBC show, and of “The Hour.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew