Cold War espionage added dramatic heft to the first season of “The Hour,” BBC America’s crisply detailed look at a fledgling newsmagazine in TV’s infancy. The series returns with much the same texture, but a less compelling backdrop to augment its soap-opera-like elements. Still eminently watchable, the first few episodes feel more mundane, recycling relationship beats from season one. “The Hour” mostly remains an hour well-spent, but without the sort of momentum that made the opening six-episode run so clever and cool.
A year has passed since the events of the first season, with Bel (Romola Garai) still producing the show’s eponymous BBC news program, while seeking to wrangle Hector (Dominic West), the dashing anchorman with whom she had a torrid affair. But with his marriage to Marnie (Oona Chaplin) now mostly a sham, Hector has taken to openly clubbing and womanizing, which unleashes its own unforeseen consequences.
Bel finds herself chafing against a new boss, Randall Brown (Peter Capaldi), who has little patience for Hector’s excesses; and flirting with a rival ITV producer (Tom Burke) — yielding another case of oh-no-we-shouldn’t tension for poor Bel. Meanwhile, her ostensible soulmate, the principled journalist Freddie (Ben Whishaw, featured in the latest James Bond pic), returns from his travels abroad, but brings a new complication along with him.
Written by Abi Morgan, the show moves along at a languid pace that can be both absorbing and slightly frustrating. The characters are strong, but questions of timing involving Bel and Freddie risk bogging down the juicy period elements in a traditional wires-crossed romance, akin to Jim and Pam in “The Office’s” early days.
Admittedly, any encore to “The Hour” was going to be challenging. That’s because the premise — which took a young TV producer so smitten with James Bond he called his female colleague “Moneypenny,” and then thrust him into an actual Cold War spy plot — was almost irresistible. Unfortunately, a reprise of that cloak-and-dagger element wouldn’t have been plausible a second time around.
Whatever it’s flaws, “The Hour” still feels superior to several of the period dramas unleashed since “Mad Men,” capturing the same swinging, anything-goes feel, as well as specific tensions related to that historical period — among them the rise of anti-immigrant fascists in the U.K.
By that measure, this second “Hour” remains an interesting historical document, but at least initially appears more determined to replicate qualities that distinguished the first rather than advance them. And while there’s still time to regain its footing, the sands are quickly running out.