Talk about arriving in our hour of need.
We've reached that point where most network series are heading for a December rest, and cable's best shows - led by Homeland and The Walking Dead - are hitting the end of their seasons. That means on many nights, your best choices are going to be repeats, reality or holiday specials.
But not on Wednesdays, as BBC America launches the perfectly timed second season of The Hour. At a mere six episodes long, you can think of this sharply performed, pleasingly intelligent British period drama as the ideal bridge show, a miniseries to carry you into January in high, impeccably British style.
Set in 1957 London, this child of Mad Men and parent of The Newsroom offers a behind-the-scenes look at a BBC news show, The Hour. The first season followed the show's creation, and near destruction, in a Soviet spy scandal. The second picks up nine months later, as whip-smart producer Bel (Romola Garai) struggles to get The Hour back on its feet in the face of competition from a new commercial network.
You don't have to know anything about British television or post-war England to recognize The Hours' well-drawn, well-acted staff or empathize with their problems. Bel yearns for her wandering friend Freddie (Ben Whishaw, James Bond's new Q), who returns with a surprise for her and for The Hour's obsessed-with-his-own-celebrity anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West, 180 degrees from his performance in The Wire and yet equally wonderful).
She also has to deal with a new hard-to-read boss (Peter Capaldi, an excellent addition) who has a past relationship with her best friend, star reporter Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor).
Any news producer needs a good news story, and Bel's choices range from the increase in London crime and the push-back against new immigrants to a rising tide of nuclear-war hysteria. What she doesn't know is how quickly those stories will intersect, and how dangerously close they'll come to some of her employees.
As creator and writer, Abi Morgan deftly uses these stories to explore the dawning shift in attitudes toward women - who are among The Hour's best creations - and the change in what it means to be British. And she does it all without sacrificing the show's understated wit.
She also has a strong crime story to tell, one that (in the opening hours, at least) seems more plausible than last season's spy story and better linked to the main characters. There are moments when the show moves a bit more slowly than it might, and when its world feels less fully lived-in than that of Mad Men. (The news program seems to get by with a tiny staff that's expected to work all the time, though come to think of it, that may be The Hour's most realistic touch.) But the acting, the characters and the fascination of seeing the late '50s from another viewpoint more than compensates.
And hey, the timing couldn't be better.