Missed opportunities and Gary Stus in BBC America’s The Hour

"Where ‘Mad Men’ is cool, ‘The Hour’ is warm … and it’s hugely gratifying to watch a drama that doesn’t sideline women when capital-H history is happening. Bel is part of history, because she’s deciding how history is being depicted. It’s heady stuff, and it’s sexy in all the right ways."

Nancy Franklin, The New Yorker, Sept. 12 (full article not online)

If only. I read this review of the recently-concluded miniseries when I was halfway through watching it, and “Yes!” I said. “That’s exactly it! Why I dislike Mad Men, why I like the feminist bent of The Hour, and why I find the newer series to be so much more gratifying” — perfect word, Nancy, I thought then — “all in one short half-paragraph.”

And I was so excited by The Hour. Bel Rowley especially, played by Romola Garai, fulfilled all my Dana Whitaker-sized adoration for a woman news producer calmly calling the shots and making the tough decisions. (Those were the early days, before Aaron Sorkin’s massive inability to write consistently intelligent women and/or romances really surfaced.)

I assume that Franklin reviewed The Hour before she saw the last episode, maybe the last couple of episodes. Like the original State of Play, the conclusion ruined several hours worth of otherwise careful storytelling. And I’m not even talking about the ill-advised spy subplot that took over The Hour’s finale. (Though I do like that someone can apparently confess to an employee to being a Soviet sleeper agent in the hallway, and then go home for dinner per usual. What Cold War paranoia?)

Putting the spies aside, the end of The Hour pretty much completely sidelines Bel, except to check in on how she’s handling that whole Sleeping with the Married Coworker thing. Feminism yay?

The single most disappointing moment of the finale for me was when Bel, having presided over a subversively anti-government broadcast, gets fired. “I expected nothing less,” she shoots back. That moment could have been a triumph — Bel “deciding how history is being depicted,” per Franklin¬† — but instead it turns empty. Bel has done nothing to earn her firing, or her proud retort. In the last couple of episodes, we see that most of the decisions that lost her job were made without her initiative or input, and in the case of the climactic anti-government interview, even without her knowledge of what content she is authorizing to be broadcast.

Those decisions, instead, are made largely by brash, young, super-reporter Freddie, who starts the series as a hyper-intelligent, hyper-annoying prickly character but ends up turning into The Hour’s perfect Gary Stu. He solves crimes! He uncovers spies! He’s on the Soviets’ super-secret list of “bright” young prospects to be recruited! He single-handedly unravels a massive governmental conspiracy, and convinces a high-ranking member of government to discuss it on a national broadcast!

So, yeah. The TV show that started out promising to depict how women like Grace Wyndham Goldie found their place in the world ended up revolving around another Wesley Crusher and his single-handed efforts to save the day. Try harder next year, Abi Morgan.