“The Hour,” an engaging yet taciturn new miniseries beginning Wednesday night on BBC America, is similar to such fare but also exceedingly, meticulously different. Set in a fictionalized depiction of BBC’s still-nascent television news operation in 1956, it is part spy thriller, part murder mystery, part love affair and part nostalgia trip. Though the six-part series does perk up a little as it plods along, it begins with a somewhat lethargic and confusing pilot episode, in which it is difficult to know what exactly “The Hour” wants to be — besides stylish.
On the plus side, it has Dominic West (“The Wire’s” Detective Jimmy McNulty) starring as a handsome if somewhat clueless news anchor who is unwittingly caught up in a complicated, multilayered plot.
The story: Freddie Lyon (played by Ben Whishaw) is a young BBC TV reporter who chafes at the network’s passive approach to newscasts, which are packed with official spin and feel-good footage of debutante parties and royal goings-on, all narrated in lifeless monotone. The Beeb, it seems, has an ingrained aversion to scandal, scoop and other aggressive journalistic jujitsu that we commonly associate with the modern British press.
“The Hour,” written and created by Abi Morgan, fixates on coverups, conspiracies and other averted glances that color the postwar mood as Britain readjusts to a somewhat lessened global sphere of influence. It’s all about spies, yes, but it’s also all about the waning days of the monarchy’s reach. The Suez Canal crisis of ’56 is the story of the moment, and it works as a symbolic backdrop to “The Hour’s” essential sense of national loss.
Freddie is sent to cover yet another society fete — this time featuring Ruth Elms (Vanessa Kirby), the daughter of Lord and Lady Elms, who is engaged to an actor. In a dramatic coinkydink, when Freddie was a young working-class lad, he lived with the Elmses during the Blitz. A depressed and paranoid Ruth tries to tip Freddie off to a big story involving the recent murder of a history professor in a subway station. Soon enough, Ruth is dead, too.
This is enough to lure Freddie into investigating both deaths, which leads to the discovery that the professor had a side hobby of submitting crossword puzzles to newspapers, which, when printed, seemed to be delivering coded messages to certain readers. Yet Freddie can’t get anyone in the news department interested enough to let him pursue it.