Bel, Freddie, Lix and Marnie: Cautiously optimistic about The Hour, season two


I was bitterly disappointed with the first season of The Hour, otherwise known as the British Newsroom by way of Mad Men, plus spies. (And oh, those halcyon days of last October, before I knew how acute “Aaron Sorkin’s massive inability to write consistently intelligent women and/or romances” would become.) The show seems to have gotten a lot more buzz for its second season on BBC America; some of the attention is of the wary, “please don’t bring back the spies” variety, but much of it applauds The Hour's glamorous atmosphere, pedigreed cast and seeming feminist bona fides.

I was less convinced, especially after this season’s first episode. It featured nominal heroine Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) once again passively reacting to events, having lost her “spark” along with her spurned platonic soul mate (Ben Whishaw playing Ben Whishaw, eerily pubescent face not improved by a breakup beard). “She’s an excellent producer, you know,” was said of Bel late in that episode, in a throw-the-remote example of “tell, don’t show” characterization.

The second episode was much better. We actually got to see Bel working on her own, protecting her reporters and digging up information from cagey sources. It was the first time in several episodes that the show bothered to show us the professional competence of our main woman character, rather than assuring us that really, she is professionally competent, trust us, and wouldn’t you rather see her make another disastrously bad romantic decision? (Of course, the episode couldn’t help teeing up a bit of the latter. Someday I’d love to see a female journalist on television whose characterization doesn’t boil down to “professionally brilliant, personal screwup.” But at least Bel’s personal foibles this season seem like they will pale next to the implosion of her co-worker and ex-lover, Hector “Jimmy McNulty” Madden.)

And there were other promising developments. Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon is still a little too perfectly saintly and Gary Stu for me, but the second episode showed a few interestingly ugly cracks in that identity. Notably: his new wife is attacked in a hate crime, and he leaves her side to catch her attacker — not to punish him, but to convince him to come appear on Freddie’s TV program. Freddie’s crusading morality and drive to get the story at any cost was already a big part of his character and the plot in season one, but I found it interesting that we’re now shown how extreme he can be even when the stakes are relatively minor. He’s not trying to crack open a super-secret Soviet conspiracy (spies!), he’s trying to book a guest for what amounts to a talk show. This choice, the privileging of professional over personal, is one he will always make, and his wife Camille is understandably upset when she becomes the “personal” in this episode. Freddie later tells Bel that eventually, “she’ll love me for it,” but whether that’s truth or foolish optimism remains to be seen. Camille would be a more interesting character if it’s the former, but given her romantic-spoiler status in the core Freddie-Bel-Hector triangle, I suspect it will eventually turn out to be the latter.

And then there’s the marvelous Anna Chancellor, whose Lix Storm seems to be getting a bit more background and screen time with a new love interest. (Yes, Lix also invited Freddie into her bed, for reasons that probably had to do with her role as a partial Abi Morgan stand-in, allowing the showrunner to consummate her crush on her favorite character. Let us never speak of it again.) Lix spent much of last season fondly mocking the shenanigans of the kids around her, which made it all the more unsettling when she decided to partake in them. But with Peter Capaldi’s Randall Brown, she sparks against an equal. Brown is a strangely compelling character, somehow managing to balance quirk with gravitas, and Capaldi and Chancellor show how chemistry is done. In the second episode of this season, they exchange glances - just a look, just fleeting expressions — and it’s like an entire relationship in a few seconds.

I haven’t even mentioned how much I like what Morgan is doing with Hector’s neglected wife Marnie, a onetime Betty Draper who just staged a coup in her marriage. I loved how Marnie mentioned Bel when she told Hector that she was done with all but appearances, that by then Bel was not The Other Woman but another example of Hector’s mistreatment of “two smart, beautiful women.”

So yeah, I’m hooked again. Here’s hoping the next four episodes don’t implode quite as much last year’s did.

Movie hopes lowered: David Mitchell’s soulless Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is the book equivalent of Mad Men: intellectually polished, impressively intricate, chilly and soulless.

In full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading the book yet; I have one chapter left. I’ve had one chapter left for about a week, since I ran smack into yet another narrative wall in the novel, wrenching me away from characters I’d almost started to care about and dropping me back in the lap of characters I’d now forgotten. It’s possible that the last 34 pages of Cloud Atlas will completely change my mind and make me realize what a brilliantly moving, important piece of literature this book is. But having barely slogged through the first half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the Ye Olde Historical diary that opens and closes the book, I’m not holding out great hope for its conclusion.

This isn’t to say I disliked all of the book. I don’t mind abandoning novels that bore me, but Cloud Atlas - once my desire to compare it to the movie powered me past that great bore of a first chapter - has kept my interest sporadically, in almost alternating main characters. Adam Ewing? Don’t care. Robert Frobisher? Gradually started to care, with a neat segue into the much better Luisa Rey. And then the awful Timothy Cavendish, relieved by the superlative Sonmi-451, and then a plummet into the interminable Zachry. The trip back has been less fun, because I read Sonmi’s conclusion dreading the return to Cavendish, and now that I’ve finished Frobisher, I really am not interested in whatever happened to Adam Ewing, and what it all means in Mitchell’s grand matrix-y philosophy of past and present and future and reincarnation and whatever other grand intellectual things he’s trying to say with this very dazzling book.

It’s hard not to admire, in a freshman crit-lit seminar sort of way. Mitchell skips easily, showily from historical epistles to hard-boiled 70’s thriller to a futuristic Aldous Huxley pastiche to an apocalyptic pidgin folk-story. He’s very accomplished. But every time I start to lose myself in the story, to become subsumed in the message rather than having the message whacked over my head with birthmarks and dreams and sextets, Mitchell yanks me back by switching characters. I could have easily spent an entire novel in the futuristic “corpocracy” of Korea, where clones are bred and then butchered and “pureblood” humans are endowed with “Souls” that track them and require them to spend a certain amount of their salaries every day. The semantics alone of this world are dazzling, and the clone narrator is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all of Mitchell’s protagonists. But on the verge of her execution, she gets rushed off-stage to watch a movie about the bumbling Cavendish, and Mitchell again pulls me out of his story.

I first started reading this book because I wanted to compare it to its new movie adaptation. And I was hoping, before reading it, that the directors of the first Matrix movie and Run Lola Run would deliver a kinetic, sparky science-fiction film with just enough philosophy underneath the dazzle. Now I’m afraid it will be the other way around.

I’ll still see the movie. But now that I’ve read their source material, I’m bracing for something from the directors of the last Matrix movie and The Princess and the Warrior.

Unpopular opinion but…

…I cannot bring myself to care, at all, about Mad Men. I literally fell asleep during this latest, much-anticipated season premiere episode. Somehow the daily doings of a roster of loathsome human beings just doesn’t seem like compelling drama to me, though obviously I’m in the minority there.

Great clothes and makeup, though. I suspect 85% of the show’s appeal is its design/fashion porn. Is it that hard to actually write some interesting, likable characters around that, though?

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?

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