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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - The Hour,

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.

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