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TV Quickshots #14

The Hour: Season 1 (BBC; 2011)

Not to be confused with George Stroumboulopoulos’ CBC talkshow (and the Ceeb changed its name anyway, so no one would), The Hour recreates the threadbare mid-1950s at Britain’s public broadcasting giant. It’s 1956, and a team of young journalists have set out to mount a new sort of pointed, challenging, and intellectually robust news program on the fledgling medium of television. Ambitious female producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) will head the program under the stewardship of BBC vet Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser), who recruits upper-class product Hector Madden (Dominic West) to serve as on-camera anchor. Bel’s longtime platonic bosom-buddy and creative foil Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is eventually convinced to come on board as well, but it’s no easy task to keep the fidgety, anti-authoritarian iconoclast on task, let alone in check.

Current events throw this team a juicy softball in the form of the simultaneous Soviet invasion of Hungary and the precipitation of the Suez Crisis between Egypt, Britain and France over the ownership of the vital shipping canal. After some initial stumbles in tone and with Madden’s eager-to-please onscreen manner, “The Hour” begins to hit its stride by poking holes in the British government position on Suez. This is professionally dangerous, as Britain had laws against direct criticism of government policy on television at the time, but Freddy’s rabble-rousing lights a fire of journalistic bravery under his collaborators. At the same time, Freddy investigates an espionage plot involving MI6 and Soviet intelligence agents that leaves a childhood friend dead and may even stretch into the halls of the BBC.

Superficial comparisons to similar period-piece Mad Men dogged The Hour, but it’s much less concerned with the pressures of social convention or the culture of boozing, smoking, and humping that absorbs everyone’s favourite fictional advertising agency. Not that there isn’t boozing, smoking, and humping here. Freddy, Bel and Hector are set up in obvious romantic-triangle terms outside of their press activities. Bel and Hector feel a mutual attraction and begin an unwise but passionate affair (Hector is married). Bel and Freddy speak the shared language of soulmates, even if the sexual chemistry that the tension of the triangle relies upon fizzles and winks out in their case. The tension of Freddy’s paranoid subplot is sometimes similarly inert, although the exhilirating discomfort of the unprecedented rabble-rousing live broadcast in the sixth episode more than makes up for it.

The Hour is delightfully, sharply written and perfectly well-acted, and it was allowed only one further set of six episodes before being unceremoniously cancelled for low ratings. It remains to be seen, by this critic in particular, if further material could be desired or if two seasons are just enough, as they often are with quality British television product. Updates to follow upon viewing the second season.

Animal Cops (Animal Planet; 2002-2012)

This enduringly watchable authorities-shadowing documentary series on the activities of SPCA and animal control organizations in various cities across the United States is nothing too difficult or sophisticated. In cities like Philadelphia, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Detroit, animal control agents from SPCAs or other local humane societies work smartly and doggedly (har) to rescue abused animals from cruel situations and sometimes bring the offenders who placed the poor creatures into those situations to justice as well. Most commonly breaking up dogfighting rings and busting puppy mills, the agents also save cats from trees, raccoons from under buckets, horses from unsanitary urban stables, and empty out an extensive private menagerie of bears and even a tiger from unsatisfactory conditions with the aid of zookeepers.

There is a feel-good focus on rehabilitated animals becoming pets in loving homes, though not all of the rescued animals make it. There are frequent PSA-style promotions of the agencies’ activities built into the narration as well; their cooperation in allowing filming carries the price of mild propagandistic messages in their own favour, which is probably fair. Like TV-vérité stretching back to COPS at least, Animal Cops feeds on the viewer’s desire to judge their fellow humans and find them not only wanting but criminally so. Combine this with the feel-good element of cute, afflicted animals winding up happy and loved, and you have foolproof leave-it-on television.

But Animal Cops‘ simplicity of construction and conventionality of presentation does not prevent it from being one of the most penetrating and accurate portrayals of American urban decay in the multi-channel universe. Especially in slowly-crumbling cities east of the Mississippi like Detroit and Philly, the persistent mistreatment of animals is a marker of the cruel spiral of poverty and social deprivation in the richest nation on earth. This resonant undercurrent makes Animals Cops more than your average ride-along doc show, if only by a little.

Categories: Reviews, Television
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