By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
3:25 PM EST, November 23, 2012
It's not often that a sequel is better than the original, especially when the original is as dazzling as BBC America's miniseries "The Hour" was last year.
But that's the case with the intoxicating mix of lust, longing, superb acting and a little bit of 1950s Brit journalism that debuts Wednesday night at 9 on BBC America.
And at the very heart of all the sizzle in this six-part series set at a BBC newsmagazine called "The Hour" is Dominic West, best known in these parts as Detective Jimmy McNulty of HBO's "The Wire." Savoring West's rich performance is one of many joys of this stylish production.
I say many, because there is not a better cast anywhere on television right now.
Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin are sublime in Showtime's "Homeland." No trio of performers on "The Hour" can match them. But "The Hour" has unmatchable depth in an ensemble that includes Ben Whishaw ("Skyfall"), Peter Capaldi ("The Thick of It"), Romola Garai ("The Crimson Petal"), Oona Chaplin ("Game of Thrones"), Anna Chancellor ("Hidden") and Julian Rhind-Tutt ("Any Human Heart").
If you haven't seen the series, you can access last year's six-pack of episodes at bbcamerica.com.
But this is really all you need to know about the original to happily fall under the spell of the sequel: It's 1950s post-war England, and the U.K.'s premier news organization is launching a newsmagazine. Understand, this is early, early, Ed Murrow-style TV news. CBS did not launch "60 Minutes" until 1968.
The presenter -- or anchor, if you will -- of the newsmagazine is Hector Madden (West), a young man of privilege, good looks and great connections. Some of the connections are provided by his wife, Marnie (Chaplin).
The most important thing to know about the marriage is that Hector cheats shamelessly on Marnie. The most important thing to know about Hector is that while he is not intellectual, he is cunning and even clever -- except when it comes to sins of the flesh.
Compared to most of his colleagues at the BBC, Hector is one of the least accomplished as a journalist -- but he plays one on TV better than any of the real ones do. And so his star is rising as TV becomes the principal storyteller of British life.
One of the many women to whom Hector is attracted is Bel Rowley (Garai), executive producer of "The Hour." Bel is attracted to Hector as well, though her deepest emotional relationship is with Freddie Lyon (Whishaw), a young, idealistic, break-the-rules-but-get-the-story BBC journalist. Freddie has the passion and integrity that Hector lacks. But Hector has the looks and the visceral appeal that the camera -- and lots of women -- seem to love.
By the end of the first season, Freddie had been fired, Hector was well on his way to stardom, and Bel was hanging on for her life emotionally and professionally.
One of the dramatic hand grenades that creator Abi Morgan ("The Iron Lady") lobs into the middle of the sequel is the addition of a new boss for Bel and her troops: Capaldi as Randall Brown, head of news for BBC. Another involves the return of Freddie -- just as Whishaw is being celebrated for his performance as Q in the latest Bond film.
I didn't think I would ever be more impressed with any Capaldi performance than his brilliant, manic, comic turn as a crazed and profane press secretary to the British prime minister in Armando Iannucci's political cult classic, "In The Loop." But Capaldi blows me away with the range he shows in "The Hour," playing Brown as an understated, inscrutable newsroom leader. After two episodes, I am not sure whether the new boss is brilliant or a bluffer -- I think brilliant. But that's how deftly Capaldi has drawn me into the dramatic orb of his character.
The sequel also offers a new after-hours Soho playground for Hector's sinful ways: the nightclub El Paradis, which features Kiki Delaine (Hannah Tointon) as singer, dancer and object of Hector's most debased desires.
The scenes at El Paradis are mesmerizing with their multiple layers of desire, physical display, sexual heat and longing. That is in part a result of the way they are filmed and slowed down to create a languid, almost dreamlike pace.
It's important to note that women created, wrote and directed every one of the scenes -- so this is not simply basic-cable, soft-porn, male-gaze sexuality as it was, say, in last season's opening episode of "Mad Men" when Don's wife, Megan, sang "Zou, Bisou, Bisou" to the delight of all the men except Don at his birthday party.
What happens at El Paradis and afterward as Hector and Kiki disrobe is more complicated. Part of it involves the camera delivering a kind of female gaze at Hector as we see him transformed by his lust. That gender flip is groundbreaking by television standards. Most credit goes to Morgan and her female-led production team, but much credit goes to West as well.
I can think of no actor outside of James Gandolfini who can use his body to physically capture the movement and aura of a man surrenderng to physical desire like West. You could see some of it in his performance as McNulty as the troubled detective gave into his craving for alcohol and started to feel the effects of the booze in his blood after a couple of drinks. West managed to communicate that sense of alcoholic surrender and release on "The Wire."
But it was only a prelude to what viewers see as he takes his seat at El Paradis and loses himself in the slinky, sultry movements of Kiki Delaine -- and the other chorus-line dancers. The transformation West executes is stunning as Hector goes from polished, in-control TV celebrity as he enters the club to heavy-lidded, lost-in-lust, dissolute sexual consumer rapaciously staring at the dancers.
Like Gandolfini, West is so smooth you believe in the reality of this man's slack-limbed surrender to desire. And just as Gandolfini did with Tony Soprano, West never lets Hector become one-dimensional, totally unlikable. It's a really a remarkable performance.
Watch "The Hour" Wednesday night, and 10 minutes in, you'll understand why West's career is soaring in theater, film and TV in the U.K. these days -- even if you already thought he was pretty good in his Baltimore days on "The Wire."
"The Hour": Returns 9 p.m. Wednesday on BBC America.
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