The mad men all voted for Richard Nixon and had no idea how advertising, let alone society, was about to swing into the 60s. In The Hour, set 10 years prior, the prime minister’s minder still talks as if Britain had an empire. But the show presents a world that is grim and grey, the old order has failed and the plebs have had enough.
Another big dig, however, that the plots are ponderous, is fair enough. This first episode gets along at a fair pace but there are episodes in the first series where it seems The Hour is on for a lot longer than its 58 minutes. The first series certainly has a touch of the Bridesheads: it took much longer to watch the televised adaptation of Waugh’s novel than to read the original book.
The two parallel plots are the problem in The Hour, which suffers from an embarrassment of imaginative riches. In the first series there is the power struggle for control of the show and the sexual tension between Freddie and Bel and Bel and Hector and Freddie and Lix as well as Lix and Randall and minor character Isaac and the secretary whose name I can’t remember, and so forth and so on.
This trundles along well enough without the other plot, which is focused on the murders that Freddie investigates and why the prime minister’s office and MI6 are interested in what the team is up to. Given that the first series is worth picking up as a DVD and is the equivalent of a superior summer beach read, I will not give away what happens. But it is enough to support a series on its own and certainly fits the show’s emphasis on the crumbling old order.
The problem is it takes time to tie everything together and the first series is probably an episode longer than it needed to be. Given the second plot in the new series does not seem so strong, this emphasis on detail may be why the ABC is running the series in the summer, when we have more time and tolerance.
You also have to wonder whether this is less a representation of how the British media and political power structure worked in the 50s than what it would have been if governed by values in vogue 60 years later.
Like Joan and Peggy in Mad Men, Bel and her mate Lix have plenty to complain about concerning the way they are treated by their male colleagues. And just as women who remember Madison Avenue in the 60s confirm the way women were patronised, I am sure there are still veterans of British newsrooms (or Australian ones, for that matter) who would say the same.
The problem is with the way they deal with it. There are occasional phrases that jar in The Hour. As Abi Morgan admits, people didn’t says things such as ‘‘ bottled out’’ (does anybody now?) or ‘‘ note to self’’ in the middle 50s. She similarly has Bel standing up for herself, using ideas and language that sound sensible to us, but which are a bit hard to imagine anybody using nearly a decade before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and close to 15 years before Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch.
Still, for a sense of what newsrooms were like in a world where gender and class decided who got what jobs you could do a lot worse than The Hour — for instance, Aaron Sorkin’s take on the same culture that appeared on pay-TV this year.
Sorkin’s series, The Newsroom, was faster paced with much better dialogue. But his morality tale of a plot was a sterile case of right and wrong, whereas people in The Hour behave like, well, people. The romantic tension is based on a relatively minor infidelity that the cast of The Hour would barely notice, and nobody drinks to excess. Everybody in Sorkin’s show has perfect teeth, enormous intellects and no need of sleep. In contrast, you have to wonder whether all the characters in The Hour shower every day — and the state of the women’s dunnies is something no American network would ever show.
Overall if you want a sense of what today’s newsrooms are like, give Sorkin’s show the slip. But if you are interested in what has always driven committed journalists, spend some hours with Freddie and Bel, Randall and Lix. And that’s a wrap. DAVID Simon, who made The Wire, is the Charles Dickens of our day. Just as Dickens used the weekly magazine serial story to explain 19th-century England and its obsesssions with money and marriage, power and poverty, so Simon presents modern America. And his themes, and characters are straight out of Dickens — although they are more profane.
The first and third series of Treme, now on pay-TV, is classic Simon. Set in New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina, it tells the story of the suburb the show is named for through the lives of a cross-section of characters. There is the ageing jazz man whose love of music and women makes for a complicated life. A young chef lacking capital struggles to keep her restaurant open. Her amiably aimless friend ‘‘ with benefits’’ enjoys life on the fringe of the city’s music scene. There is a brilliant young violinist, held back by an unfaithful lover whom she adores.
Perhaps the most engaging is Clarke Peters as an ‘‘ Indian chief’’, a stalwart of the city’s Mardi Gras culture, threatened by the way the city is being rebuilt. The least appealing is John Goodman playing an academic and writer who confuses his own self-obsession with the city’s story.
There is a mystery running through the series — the fate of a young man in jail who disappeared in the chaos following the storm — but it is the ordinary people rebuilding their ordinary lives that makes Treme such a spectacular success.
Simon has a Dickensian ability to capture a culture by examining the lives of individuals: cops and drug dealers in The Wire and the tough but perceptive marines in his unjustly ignored series about the second Gulf War, Generation Kill. In Treme, his characters explain a city that exists outside the great American homogeneity of endless suburbia but they are also credible as almost universally appealing individuals.
Like Dickens, Simon may not look for the good in everybody but he recognises that for all our flaws everybody wants to belong and be loved. But Simons is also part of another tradition — the writer as social reformer.
As with The Wire, Treme is a commentary on that American dream, coming back into fashion with Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in which he asserted the moral authority and obligation of the state to assist its citizens.
In Simon’s world, the heroes are not entrepreneurs; they are social workers, teachers, legal aid lawyers and the ordinary people whose friendships and experience are the glue of a community.
In series one of Treme nobody goes bowling alone. It makes for enormously engaging and optimistic television. The optimism isn’t as promised in the more recent episodes but they are still dramas about real people. It’s worth watching all three series during the summer. Unless you hate New Orleans music — for people who think there is a whole circle of hell allocated to jazz, Treme is in it.