Sunday, 18 November 2012

TV Recap: The Hour, S2E1.

All style and no substance and actually not very much style at that.

The Hour is desperately shooting for Mad Men and painfully failing. I’d hoped that after the limp mess that concluded the first series they’d have turned it around, but it really doesn’t look like it. This episode was flat and wet and kind of dull and all over the place. I want to like this show really badly but it’s just letting me down.

You can look mad all you want, it's still true.

Heartbreaking: A Betty Draper if ever I saw one. These
silent scenes were ones the show actually did well.
At the beginning of this episode, The Hour (the in-show show) is in trouble. It is made extremely obvious that this is because it doesn’t have Freddie in it (“There’s a certain something… lacking. Edge. Bite.” Yes yes yes just bring him back already.) Hector has morphed utterly into a second-rate Don Draper. He’s turning up late for work every day and going out drinking in nightclubs every night, sleeping with chorus girls and leaving his poor Betty of a wife at home alone in her sad lavender apartment. Fine. Boring but believable. Bel is quivering under the sharp eye of the new Head of News, Mr Brown (and can I just say how happy I am to see Peter Capaldi again, now that The Thick of It is SOB finished forever), and trying to keep Hector happy, despite him being utterly crap and apparently ruining her show.  Lix is still 100% amazing. They should just make the whole show about her.

Beautifully shot.

Things that I remember happening in this episode, which I literally just watched:

At least she got to yell at him wearing a really
fantastic hat?
  • Hector behaving like an out and out dickbag the whole way through. If I wanted to see men purposely riling women up by smugly patronising them from the top of their tower of privilege, I would just get a job. No one gets to talk to Lix like that, jerk! Sorry, Hector, but you will never be Don Draper. Then he had sex with a chorus girl who I remember was in Hollyoaks like five years ago, and also The Inbetweeners, which was weird. Then A Mysterious Someone attacked her. Then Hector’s wife yelled at him because they’ve been trying for a baby and he won’t go to the doctor. Wasn’t this exact storyline on Mad MenIs whatever Hector’s wife is called Trudy Campbell? Also Another Mysterious Someone gave Hector some insider info from Westminster that could spark a scandal. Also Some Guy from ITV tried to poach him and he was on the front page of the newspaper.

  • Freddie came back! Yay! With a horrible beard. Booo. 

Oh, honey, no.
  • And when he came back, Sissy the Secretary ran over to hug him in front of everyone. I know being incompetent and unprofessional is kind of Sissy’s thing, but… what? That doesn’t seem right. It’s supposed to be 1957. You couldn’t do that in an office now.
  • I kept expected Peter Capaldi to start screaming inventive obscenities at everyone, but he didn’t. He just made sharp comments under his breath and had Sexual Tension with Lix. A SECRET PAST, DUN DUN DUNNNN.

A terrifying man.
That was a beautiful blue on her. Really brought out her eyes.
  • Actually everyone had sexual tension this episode, just like every other episode, and just like every other episode, it was heavy handed, clumsy, unbelievable and completely unsexy. Maybe it’s Romola Garai? Maybe she is just kind of a wet fish? I’ve been holding off writing about her, but I can’t buy any romantic or sexual attraction between Bel and Freddie or Bel and Hector. When Mad Men does sexual tension, it is sexy. When The Hour does it, it is like teenagers in a school play. I honestly just cannot believe that Bel and Freddie could be anything but friends, or that Bel could be anything but disgusted by and  contemptuous of Hector. Hear that, writers? All the forced sexual tension is ruining your show. I want to see Bel being cool and tough and good at her job, not flapping around and pining like damn Bridget Jones. Can she please have just one conversation with no sexual innuendoes and without being told off?
  • Freddie swooped in and used Terrible Hector’s inside scoop to break a big story about police funding, upsetting a cabinet minister in the process. Nuclear war blah blah.
  • Something boring about competition from ITV. I quite enjoy that ITV are all sinister slimy be-hatted bad guys. Hector belongs there.
  • Crime in Soho. I am 100% certain this is going to be a plot point. Related: what was the deal with those photos of Hector and A Mysterious Someone? “The same face but fifteen years younger”? Not understood. (This show certainly relies pretty heavily on Mysterious Someones.)
  • Angus had sex with a male prostitute. Openly. In front of Hector and… erm… Some Other   
Yeah, real subtle Angus, nice one.
Guys. WHAT? Didn’t quite a large plot point last series revolve around it being really important that people not know if you were gay? It is 1957. Homosexuality was still illegal for another decade. What the hell was that, Angus, do you want to go to jail?
  • Annoying Sissy is, what, moving into Freddie’s house with her black boyfriend? Just the boyfriend is moving in? Then some people were racist. Social commentary, CHECK. (Note: I will be happy if the show goes on to explore this issue further, because particularly in Britain, our history of racism in the mid-late 20th century doesn’t come up very much. One of my few major problems with Mad Men is that the race issue is all but ignored. However, if the black boyfriend exists solely that he can be called the n-word and then never appears again, that is terrible and unhelpful. Did he even get a single line this episode?)
  • Freddie got married. I will be interested in this only if his wife turns out to be an interesting character. If she exists only as Competition For Bel (who by the way flailed hopelessly, clutching her bottle of wine like she’s damn Kate Hudson), and Exotic Sexy French Liberated Competition with a Short Haircut and No Trousers (SACRE BLEU) at that, I am thoroughly uninterested in this development. I want Camille to have a story and a personality. I bet she’s fascinating. Please, please do not let her only exist as Freddie’s-wife and Not-Bel, the way that Hector’s wife (whose name I don’t even know) last series existed pretty much as Hector’s-wife and Not-Bel.
  • A Mysterious Pamphlet! Oooooh!
  • The preview of next week seemed to spoil the entire episode. Scale it back a bit, no?
See, this is a gal I want to get to know.
So, just off the top of my head that is like thirteen bullet points. There is way too much going on in this show, and the writing is far too weak to cope with it all. The biggest problem they have frankly is Bel. Bel ought to be the strong centre of this story. She’s a young woman who is the producer of her own BBC hard-hitting news show in 1957. She struggles against sexism, censorship and politics while trying to navigate her personal romantic and sexual desires. That is a great hook. That ought to be the central narrative of this show, and if they were doing it strongly, it would even be able to carry the political thriller sideplots and would be enhanced through the focus on the personal lives of the other cast members. But they’re doing a terrible job with this character. I am mad at this show for how it treats her. Bel is just terrible. She ought to be strong and tough and good at her job and smart and funny and interesting, and she isn’t. She is a big blank nothingy mess of a character. She just stutters around all over the place making bad decisions, desperately pandering to Hector, being told off, swinging wildly between being snappy and cross and pathetically eager to please, and being apparently practically incompetent at her job. “She’s a brilliant producer!” insists Lix. Oh, really? You have to show us, not tell us, because what I see is her being useless and I don’t understand why she even has a TV show because she can’t run it. She can’t even get her host to be on time for the start of the show. People are walking all over Bel and she can’t do anything about it. I really, really want her to stop being simultaneously so uptight and controlling, and such a wet doormat. Peggy on Mad Men managed it. I want Bel to inspire me, to be a hero, and instead I just want to fire her and do her job myself.

Oh, look, and I haven’t even started on Romola Garai’s bizarre overacting. I know she is a great actress, so I don’t even know what is going on with her. Every facial expression Bel makes is brilliant acting like someone acting like something. When Freddie’s wife appeared, she did a brilliant job of acting like someone who’s just found out the man they love got married to someone else. But… that’s kind of not the point of acting. I’m clearly no expert, but something is wrong here. Maybe it’s just that everything this character does and says is so uncharacteristic and her actions and reactions are so wildly inconsistent that it’s just impossible to be believable. This might also be a direction problem, I would find her attraction to Freddie and to Hector much more intriguing if she wasn’t so damn obvious about it all the time. Her emotions seem astonishingly un-complex, and they’re written all over her face. The depth of her feeling seems to be nothing more than “I FANCY YOU” [BLANK FACE, SEXUAL INNUENDO] and then “I AM CRUSHED THAT YOU ARE WITH SOMEONE ELSE” [WIDE EYES, STUTTER, BLINK AWAY TEARS]. That second one is also her reaction to being told off about her show.

I like sparse writing, but when you say less, you need to say more. When you aren’t telling a story in many words, you need to use the words you have better,  and you need to tell stories visually, through acting and through scenery, art direction, composition. This show doesn’t do that, and when it aims for it it’s unbearable clunky (e.g. Freddie saying “The view is better from here” [CUT TO SHOT OF BEL IN HER OFFICE] PS this was kind of creepy because it is condoning spying on someone without their knowledge as romantic which by the way it is not.) Dialogue in TV shows needs to either sound realistic, and so build character, or it needs to be sharp and useful in advancing the plot. The dialogue in The Hour has no punch. It isn’t striking, edgy or informative at all, and worse, it doesn’t even sound like real people speaking. None of Bel’s lines build any sense of her personality at all. Great writing produces words that can be instantly attached to their speakers. In The Hour, most of the lines could have been spoken by anyone. As far as I can tell, only Freddie’s dialogue is really distinguishable from anyone else. The writers also rely really heavily on the old building-tension trope of characters not saying what they really mean, being mysterious, leaving out key information to “keep the viewers guessing”. As far as I’m concerned this is almost always just bad writing. It’s not intriguing, it’s just annoying. It’s not how people really speak or think. This is very much related to this show’s problem of there being too many Mysterious Strangers. There’s only so many Sinister Men in Hats that I can care about. This really doesn’t need to be a mystery show, and it would be much more compelling without it.

Making a good stab at it,  bit heavy handed.
It’s difficult, but doable for a TV show to tell stories through action and vision instead of dialogue, and Mad Men does this brilliantly. Long, thoughtfully composed and directed shots, even when totally silent, tell you so much story in that show. Not a frame is wasted when it could be used to tell you more about the characters and their lives. There’s nothing of the sort in this show. Much of it is very beautifully shot, and it’s clear that they’ve taken visual cues from Mad Men, but they haven’t paid attention to the great way that the visual is used, resulting in a show that looks superficially stylish but isn’t telling stories with or in any great depth at all.

Let’s not even think about that weird slow motion bit at the end.

Okay. Here is my fix for The Hour:

1. Write Bel better. It is a myth that women are endeared to incompetent female characters. You’re not writing a chick flick. Let’s have her get herself together and then we can be interested in her interesting life. She needs a personality. The writers don’t know who she is, so she’s a mess. I want to be interested in her as a person.

2. Cut down the background characters and Mysterious Strangers. Either they’re real characters with stories and storylines, or they’re out. Mysterious Strangers mean lazy writing.

3. Pick a couple of strong storylines per episode and write those. Stop being so all over the place. The making of the TV show is the most interesting part. That’s the central hook, focus on it.

4. More Lix.
I will get a train to Morocco with you, Lix! I bet it'll
be a hoot. We can drink whiskey and you can
let me try on your glasses.
5. Stop Hector being so unrelentingly horrible. He was mildly interesting towards to beginning of Series 1; in this episode he was completely dull. It’s no fun to watch at all. The Don Draper act has been done better by Don Draper. Hector doesn’t make compelling TV because no one cares what happens to him. I don’t care if his wife leaves him or stays. I’d be happy if he moved to ITV and we barely saw him ever again. You need to let people be invested in a character and in his relationships before he can start destroying them. Irredeemably horrible men just don’t make good TV. Look at Alan Sugar.

6. More Freddie. Freddie does make for compelling TV. I’d like to see his relationship with Bel settle into a very solid, mutually supportive friendship, where she stops alternately snapping and pining over him.

7. Make use of Peter Capaldi. He was the one spark in this episode that I thought might indicate it going somewhere interesting.

8. Much much more character development. Let us get to know more women. Because there’s so much going on plotwise, there’s been so little time spent with any of the more minor, but still important characters, particularly the women. I want to get to know Lix. I want to know Hector’s wife, and Freddie’s wife, maybe even Kiki Delaine if she’s going to turn out important. I’d like to see relationships forming between these women, maybe even friendships. This show needs to be built on a net of solid relationships between its characters that just don’t exist now.

Oh boy. That got a bit out of hand. Here’s what I did like about this episode:

Formatting pictures is REALLY HARD, you guys. Why won't they just stay where I put them? WHY?

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