A spy thriller needs a spine as stiff as James Bond’s martini to nickname a character Moneypenny. BBC America’s retro-hip “The Hour” certainly has the nerve, and occasionally even the punch to back it up.
Set in a BBC newsroom in 1956 -- more excuse than necessary to doll itself up like a “Mad Men” theme party -- “The Hour” doesn’t improve on its obvious inspirations.
It deserves points, however, for knowing how to pick them: A show-within-the-show is called “The Man Who Knew,” as if adding “Too Much” would be exactly that.
The show is a tasty cocktail of “Front Page” repartee, soap-opera romance, murder mystery and Cold War intrigue, all set to a score that sounds like Henry Mancini warming up for “The Pink Panther.”
The six-part series stars Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, a talented, hotheaded BBC writer working alongside his beautiful, ambitious producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai).
He calls her Moneypenny, after the flirtatious secretary in the Bond films. She calls him James, and together they dream of Important Journalism.
They’re saddled with inexperienced anchorman Hector Madden (Dominic West), whose qualifications, at least initially, are limited to rugged handsomeness, sexy charm and upper-crust connections.
The star-crossed love triangle -- sort of a 1950s “Broadcast News” -- is the best of this show’s multiple personalities. Less successful is Freddie’s investigation into the murder of a prominent professor of Arabic studies who doubles as a spy.
The initial promise dims a bit, especially when 21st-century attitudes intrude. At one point, Bel upbraids an eager secretary for offering to fetch tea for the men.
Still, even at its least inventive -- Episode Three’s weekend in the country brings everyone together in one manor house mousetrap -- “The Hour” can rely on a terrific cast.
Whishaw’s journalist calls himself a working-class “mug” despite his waifish build. Slender shoulders aside, he’s strong enough to carry “The Hour” and all its bravado.
“The Hour” airs Wednesday on BBC America at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2
Even a reality-TV paycheck can’t bring economic recovery to the Bruces, the real-life Brady Bunch introduced in last year’s compelling debut season of “Downsized.”
The second season finds Todd and Laura Bruce and their blended family of seven adolescents still reeling from the bankruptcy of Todd’s construction business. Settled into a three-bedroom suburban Arizona rental home that looks just fine from the curb, the Bruces struggle to rebuild financial security.
For Todd, that means using their last $18,000 (money earned from the show’s first season) as a down payment on a new home. Laura wants to save the rainy day fund.
“Downsized” isn’t above the narrative setups and tell-tale editing that typify the genre, but the Bruces would have to be Oscar-worthy actors to fake this fear. Beneath its slick surface, this reality show is oddly real.
“Downsized” airs tomorrow on WE TV at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2
Newsman Harry Reasoner predicted in 1972 that Gloria Steinem’s new Ms. Magazine wouldn’t last six months. “These ladies,” Reasoner said on the air, would soon “run out of things to say.”
Was he ever wrong. Four decades later, Ms. survives and Steinem still has plenty to say.
“Gloria: In Her Own Words,” directed by Peter Kunhardt, uses vintage clips and a fresh interview with Steinem to trace her journey from neglected child and Playboy bunny to groundbreaking editor and feminist icon.
Her detractors -- and they too survived the ‘70s, as made clear by the cruel comments aimed at Steinem by a caller on “The Larry King Show” -- won’t be won over by “Gloria.” Look no further than the title for an indication of the film’s balance.
But the rest of us can delight in Steinem’s wit, intelligence and defiance, which are still going strong.
“Gloria: In Her Own Words” airs tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)