At first glance, AMC’s Mad Men and BBC’s The Hour seem to sit side by side on the spectrum of quality period dramas. Vodka versus gin martini. It’s true, their respective façades have a similar finish. After all, the sleek veneer of the mid-century, smoke-filled, wood-paneled office drama was made a hallmark by Mad Men when it first premiered in 2007. But façades, true to their nature, can be deceptive. Mad Men and The Hour have little in common besides their expected penchants for cigarette haze and mid-workday whisky. And if there’s one thing NBC’s disastrous run of The Playboy Club (and ABC’s marginally more successful Pan Am) have taught us, it’s that casual sexism, scandal, and a ‘60s setting are not enough to carry a show.
Yet while Mad Men‘s ratings keep going up as the show heads to a sixth season, The Hour has just been cancelled after two short six-episode series. On just about the most emotionally devastating cliffhanger ending imaginable. I know, I don’t really want to talk about it either.
Because The Hour is everything that Mad Men (and The Newsroom) could ever hope to be. It balances driving plot and sexy aesthetic with a deft hand, hitting all the right notes of good historical fiction (the sincerity of Cold War racial and imperial anxiety mixed with a healthy dose of communist spies, MI6 espionage, and workday whisky drinking). And though the show features a somewhat expected love triangle between trailblazing producer Bel Rowley, charismatic anchor Hector Madden, and maverick reporter Freddie Lyon, the sordid romance plays subplot to the actual journalism.
Imagine that, a show about people who have jobs that actually focuses on people having jobs.
It’s hard to see a show like The Hour pass away when it was just heating up. But for all its excellent components (the striking, round-the-corner shots of unfiltered cigarette smoke, the fast-paced story arcs on Suez and Hungary, and the slightly anachronistic skirt suits), I am mostly just sad to see these women go.
No Mad Woman could ever compete with Bel Rowley or Lix Storm.
Bel chides her eager-to-please assistant, “Do you want to be taken seriously? Or forever be some stupid little marionette forever fluttering on the arm of every good-looking man in the BBC? First rule, don’t make tea.”
She goads her frontman Hector in the station’s lobby as they make first acquaintance. “I never understand women and magazines,” he offers as an opening line, “You only ever buy them for the pictures.” Bel humors him, “You’re so right. And those things called novels? Impossible. So many words.”
Now these are the words of an emancipated woman. There aren’t many shows that open a season premier with a shot of a woman working at her desk.
Watching Bel and Freddie flit around the office – passing distractedly through smoke filled doorways, pouring over collages of clippings and photos – it is clear that they are driven by natural curiosity and the insatiable desire to find the truth behind their Cold War plot. It is nothing short of vigilance.
Throughout The Hour, there is the knowledge that this is wild, historical fiction, but the combined effect of the cast’s performance the the show’s thrilling pace make this thought irrelevant by the opening titles. The premiere of Mad Men opens with the silhouette of a lounging cartooned man, as relaxed as can be, with a cigarette dangling from his fingers. (The Newsroom, of course, opens with a speech.) The Hour opens with a journalist speaking uncomfortably close and tight to the camera: “The newsreels are dead. We’ve bored the public for too long.”
And there’s the difference.
–Meaghan Murphy, Staff Writer