The Hour, season one.

I wasn’t aware of the existence of the BBC series The Hour (official site) until I caught Alan Sepinwall’s positive review of it in August, and as a fan of highbrow British drama and of one of the series’ three stars, Dominic West (a.k.a., Jimmy McNulty), added it to the DVR queue. Its combination of suspense, complicated interoffice relationships (romances and rivalries), and subtle jabs at modern Western governments did not disappoint, even when the show didn’t quite deliver the slam-bang finish my American sensibilities anticipated.

“The Hour” is the show within this show, a new BBC newsmagazine program that debuts in 1956, just as the Soviets are about to crush an uprising in Hungary and Colonel Nasser is about to nationalize the Suez Canal. This propitious timing coincides with a more personal intrigue that consumes the program’s chief reporter, Freddie (Ben Whishaw), who receives a desperate attempt for help from an old friend, the daughter of the wealthy aristocratic family that took him in during the Blitz. “The Hour” is produced by Bel (Romola Garai), Freddie’s ex-girlfriend and a controversial choice as producer because of her gender, and Freddie finds himself passed over for the anchor’s chair by the ambitious cad Hector (West), who appears to be all style but develops over the six episodes into a man of substance – or a man who wants to have substance but can’t fully commit to it.

Although Hector and Bel end up in the sack – really, if you couldn’t see that coming, I have some bad news about Santa Claus – the relationship between Hector and Freddie is the most fascinating of the show. Freddie is naturally jealous of Hector’s ease with women and affair with Bel, but Hector sees in Freddie an intellectualism and persistence that he wishes he had. Freddie purports to scorn Hector, but on some level desires his respect, not realizing he’s already earned it.

The Hour‘s creators have also done an excellent job of filling out the roster beyond the Big Three with complex characters who work as more than just mere props and set the show up well for future seasons (there’s at least one more in the pipeline). Clarence, Bel’s boss, is the most central of these, a longtime company man who must shield the show from would-be government censors but also has personal motives for his actions, including one revealed in a brief, impassioned speech to Freddie about this show being the opportunity for which he’s worked his entire career. There’s also a ton of groundwork laid for the future in Hector’s marriage to Marnie, whose executive father has been instrumental in advancing Hector’s career. (Marnie is played by Oona Chaplin, whose grandfather, Charlie, appeared in a few films of his own.)

The drama of putting on a weekly news program isn’t in and of itself much with which to sustain a show, so the writers have written most of that into the background, waiting until the final episode to shift it to the front of the plot, at which point it ties together Freddie’s intrigue story, Hector and Bel’s affair, and the threat of censorship into one very tense program, with a plot twist during the live broadcast I truly did not see coming. Instead, the writers relied on the intrigue, the romance, and the discussions of actual events in the Suez and Budapest to keep up the tension in the first five episodes, as well as the tremendous performances by all three of the central actors, particularly Whishaw as the sleep-deprived reporter whose search for the truth encompasses both political and personal ends.

I’ve seen some criticism of the show in the British press that compared it to the American series Mad Men for its setting in a previous era and heavy use of the look and style of that time period, but it reminded me more of a British made-for-TV movie from 1988 called A Very British Coup, in which a populist Labour Party candidate becomes Prime Minister, only to face a wide-ranging conspiracy by entrenched commercial interests to remove him from power. That film, like The Hour, does tension the hard way, through words and characters plotting rather than through the threat of physical harm. It’s a tough trick, and I even found myself falling into the trap in the final episode of season one, when, after the show-within-the-show has concluded, the final piece of the spy puzzle is placed, but quietly, without a weapon or an officer of the law in sight. I find films, TV series, and books written in that way to be very satisfying because I feel more involved in the tension – putting a protagonist at the end of the gun barrel is easy, so easy it’s brutally overused – but I could easily understand someone seeing The Hour‘s dialogue-driven plot as dull for the very same reason. Your mileage may vary.

You can watch The Hour on amazon instant video, but it doesn’t appear to be on Netflix instant streaming yet.