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Hour: Season 1, The

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // September 27, 2011
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 28, 2011 | E-mail the Author
"Reveal fleeting moments in history. Not with apology...not as it is now: endless static newsreel...a man who never leaves his desk delivering the story as if it's the dry five-minute warm-up act before Hancock's Half Hour. Of course everyone wants to be entertained, but while we're all busy laughing, Russia is aligning its missiles and declaring World War III. It has to be the hour you can't miss -- the hour you have to see."

Television news in the U.K., once upon a time, was frothy entertainment like most everything else on the air. Hard-hitting journalism had seemingly little place outside the printed page, with what was meant to
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pass for news almost entirely limited to toothless, insubstantial newsreels. In the mid-1950s, martial law could be declared in Poland, and the BBC would be too busy gabbing about the Queen Mum's new hat to bother to so much as mention it offhand. There were some who sought to change that. "The Hour" would be the first British news program to aim its cameras away from debutante balls and track and field events to instead feature real journalists bringing to Britain news of the events that were so dramatically reshaping the world. However, the ambitious weekly program's earliest episodes prove to be the embarrassment its many critics anticipated. As the crisis between Britain and Egypt over the Suez Canal turns more and more violent, a series hellbent on aggressively documenting the news of the world is quickly given much to report. The British government is more interested in propaganda than proper journalism, and "The Hour" itself is soon embroiled in a battle that threatens to destroy the fledgling series. Little did anyone realize at the time that "The Hour" would soon be documenting the end of the British Empire.

It seems as if every network has one period drama or another in production following the staggering success of Mad Men, but The Hour shouldn't at all be dismissed as some sort of shameless knockoff. The similarities between the two lay mostly on the surface. Both series meld fact and fiction, setting their own original stories against the backdrop of significant historical events a half-century in the past. Sex, liquor, and cigarettes are every bit as inescapable throughout The Hour as they are in Mad Men, and both series share a fascination with reproducing their respective eras to the most painstakingly minute detail that it borders on fetishistic. Really, though, the comparisons all but end there. For instance, the driving force for so many of the characters in Mad Men is power: a corner office, a summer home, and prestige to spare. In The Hour, its key characters are fighting for a cause in which they deeply believe. The truth isn't a distant, abstract concept but is instead almost tangible; something they strive to seek out, latch onto, and bring beaming into the homes of millions of Britons. Though The Hour has more than its share of heated arguments and bitter rivalries, that everyone is fighting in the
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television trenches together to serve a common goal brings about a sense of friendship and camaraderie that's not often seen in Mad Men. By and large, everyone on the staff of "The Hour" wants each other to thrive and succeed. Whereas Peggy Olson played the part of the outsider-looking-in at Sterling-Cooper -- someone young, talented who's idealistic, and rising into a position of power that unsettles many of the old guard around her -- "The Hour" has several characters who fit that bill and yet in very different ways.

One key differentiating factor is that The Hour, at its core, is not a period drama about a struggling news program but a political thriller, complete with espionage, a sprawling conspiracy, MI6 spooks, a wormy government stooge, what may or may not be a faked suicide, complex ciphers left behind by a murdered master spy, and a doggedly idealistic journalist whose investigation soon places him within the conspirators' crosshairs. That's not at all the series I was expecting to watch, but I found it remarkably engaging just the same. It's a more complex scenario than gallant heroes simply squaring off against malevolent pulp villains. Also, although the thriller elements -- the repercussions of Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) investigating what he believes to be the staged suicide of a politically-connected childhood friend -- are largely disconnected from "The Hour" as a news program, it does all eventually come full-circle. As the entire series offers a complete beginning, middle, and end over the course of just six episodes, the limited time allotted ensures that not a moment is wasted. The Hour is so engrossing that I couldn't help but devour the entire season in a single sitting.

The cast of The Hour is marvelous straight across the board, but I particularly appreciate the depth and dimensionality that Ben Whishaw brings to the part of Freddie Lyon: a young, brash, fiery journalist who's idealistic to the point of self-destruction. I also appreciate the fact that although The Hour is teeming with astonishingly gorgeous women, the series generally prefers not to reduce them to clichés. Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor) brings to her weary, middle-aged former war correspondant a magnetic confidence that ensures that she's the most memorable element of every scene in which she appears. Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is a stunning, ambitious twentysomething in a rare position of power. Young, beautiful, female producers were hardly commonplace in 1956, and even those who would acknowledge a woman's drive and talent were still dismissive, certain that marriage and pregnancy were such an inevitability that they might as well just hire a man who'll stay with the job. Bel's is a part that could so easily be
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overplayed, settling into an overcompensatingly shrill harpy or an excessively emotional puddle, and Garai chooses instead to play her as...well, a person. The strain is immense and takes its toll, but still she's steeled with resolve. Bel is somewhat thinly sketched in the first episode or two, but a greater and more readily appreciated picture quickly takes shape after that.

Bel is ensnared in a love triangle, and although that'd ordinarily leave me rolling my eyes, this one is cut from the same cloth as that of Broadcast News, and that can't entirely be considered a bad thing. Sparks fly between Bel and Hector (Dominic West), the impossibly handsome anchor of "The Hour" who was raised in privilege and couldn't bring himself to care less about journalism. I'll confess to finding the infidelity between the producer and her married subordinate to be rather bland, and although it certainly makes sense in the context of the story -- a woman as intensely career-oriented as Bel would almost certainly seek out a relationship at the office since she has so few other places to look -- it's the least interesting aspect of The Hour and is there seemingly out of obligation. Far more intriguing is the relationship between Freddie and Bel. Again, much like what I hope you've seen in Broadcast News, the two of them share a sincere sense of comfort, familiarity, and respect that's rarely seen outside the very closest of friends. It's a bond that supercedes the attraction and love the two clearly have for one another, and again, The Hour wields the intelligence and restraint to resist allowing all this to devolve into some sort of weepy soap opera.

There's so much more I'm desperate to say about The Hour, particularly its tremendous finalé, but I certainly don't want to spoil anything for those who have yet to experience the series. In fact, this Blu-ray set has much to offer even those viewers who did tune into The Hour on BBC America when it debuted just a few short weeks ago; these episodes all run around 58 minutes a piece, reinstating quite a bit of footage that I'm told was trimmed out of the domestic broadcasts to make room for commercials. A series as artful and absorbing as The Hour is well-worth seeking out on Blu-ray, regardless if it's as a discovery or a revisit, and here's hoping a second season isn't too far behind. Highly Recommended.

As The Hour was shot at a framerate incompatible with most displays on this side of the pond, this Blu-ray set is presented at 1080i60 to accommodate as best it can. The interlacing and shift in framerate
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can be noticeable at times, but everything else about the visuals is so stunning that such things are easily overlooked. The Hour is a breathtakingly cinematic series, boasting a gorgeous period palette and striking interplay between light and shadow. A show this immaculately designed benefits immeasurably from the crispness and clarity that Blu-ray has to offer, and the level of detail showcased here is frequently astonishing. Aside from some of the unavoidable artifacts from the framerate conversion, the only flaws I noticed were some infrequent stutters in the AVC encode. There's a pan shortly after the seven and a half minute mark in the third episode that's distractingly poorly compressed, for instance, with a country road devolving into a blocky smudge. Thankfully, such concerns are rare, and I'm overall thrilled with how gorgeous The Hour looks on Blu-ray.

The Hour's six episodes are spread across a pair of BD-50 discs, and the series is presented on Blu-ray at its broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

The Hour's stereo PCM audio sounds terrific. Though there were brief moments where I found myself struggling with the accents, the presentation certainly doesn't shoulder the blame, as the series' dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. The jazz-inflected score is wonderfully rich and full-bodied as well. This is quite a strong showing, free of any complaints or concerns whatsoever.

There are no alternate soundtracks on this Blu-ray set, and its subtitles are limited to English (SDH) exclusively.

Not much, disappointingly.
  • Behind the Scenes (10 min.; SD): The first of The Hour's featurettes delves into the look of the series, particularly the meticulous
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    attention to detail in its production design, cinematography, and wardrobe. There's some brief discussion about the visual inspirations behind each character, and a fair amount of time is devoted to guided tours of many of The Hour's key sets and locations.

  • Creating The Hour (20 min.; SD): The Hour's second making-of piece redirects its focus away from production and more towards concept and characterization: the challenging dialogue, the conspiratorial premise, the talented cast's approach to realizing these characters, the tangled web of relationships and conflicts, and how relevant a story The Hour weaves despite being set more than a half-century in the past.

The Hour comes packaged in a slimline two-disc case.

The Final Word
Early reviews were quick to label The Hour as Mad Men with a British accent, but beyond the surface similarities of chainsmoking and a meticulous reproduction of an era long past, the primary element that the two have in common is that they're both terrific, wonderfully crafted television series. For those who overlooked The Hour when it debuted on these shores just a few short weeks ago, it's a deeply rewarding discovery on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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