Saturday 29 April 2017

Television: Des drains the bog as RTÉ plumbs the comedy depths

Des Bishop: providing a smugly superior tirade about the state of the nation
Des Bishop: providing a smugly superior tirade about the state of the nation

John Boland

Instead of being satirical, the first instalment of This is Ireland with Des Bishop (RTÉ2) was merely scornful, which isn't the same thing at all.

Scoffing is easy, especially when you don't bother with witty one-liners, and there was a marked absence of them in Bishop's smugly superior tirade about the state of the nation.

And so Donald Trump's pledge to "drain the swamp" became a repeated chant of "drain the bog", with Bishop offering, as a local alternative to the "dick pics" of American politics, "actual pictures of dicks" in the form of campaign posters for Michael Lowry, Alan Kelly, Willie O'Dea and the Healy-Raes.

The level of sneering didn't get any funnier, unless you're partial to such rants as "There's a million of you out there who paid your water charges - suckers!" or gags such as "Fine Gael should look after Kim Kardashian's trousers because they are experts at arse-covering".

Towards the end, independent TD Stephen Donnelly came on to rail against vulture funds and puff his own holier-than-thou politics, and you wondered what on earth he was doing here. Had he mistakenly passed by the door to the Claire Byrne Live studio?

At the outset, Bishop had welcomed viewers "to our little country where comedians do the current affairs". On this evidence, they should stop.

Ah, the joys of RTÉ2 comedy. In the same night's instalment of Bridget and Eamon, the repellent spouses pretended to be Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner from 1980s series Hart to Hart, mainly so that a randy hotel manager could say to the racquet-wielding Bridget "you certainly know how to grip a shaft" and she could retort "when I see swinging balls I like to give them a good hard whack", and he in turn could respond with "I'd love to serve an ace in your hole".

Over on RTÉ1, George Lee was attempting to salvage our national broadcaster's reputation with the second instalment of Better Off Abroad, though this hour-long sojourn in London was a good deal less interesting than his previous week's visit to Hong Kong.

That's partly because the English capital is much more familiar to most of us than that Far East outpost but mainly because very little got said that wasn't a cliché. And so we heard that London is "full of wealth and money", that "anybody can be anything here" and that it's "a huge melting pot" with "its own momentum".

Lee fretted over the "uncertainty" of Brexit in his conversations with various Irish expats, most of whom were doing very well in this "very vibrant economy" - indeed, he didn't come across any of the forgotten Irish for whom, as for many of their antecedents, the streets of London were not paved with gold.

Or if he did, he chose not to interview them.

Elsewhere, it was a week of drama, most of the hype being devoted to the American series This Is Us (Channel 4), which began with a gimmick and ended its opening episode with a twist most viewers wouldn't have foreseen.

The gimmick was that the principal characters were 36 years old and had been born on the same day - including the unhappily overweight Kate, unfulfilled daytime soap star Kevin and stockbroker Randall, who had been abandoned outside a fire station at birth by his drug-addicted father. Oh, and there was also Jack and triplet-bearing Rebecca awaiting the outcome in a maternity hospital.

This was tug-your-heartstrings stuff as Randall located his errant parent, Kate found possible romance at a Weight Watchers session, Kevin had a career-crisis meltdown and Jack and Rebecca encountered their own hospital traumas, but it was lifted out of irredeemable schmaltz by a sharp script from creator Dan Fogelman and arresting performances from an unfamiliar cast.

As for the twist that finally pulled all the stories together, I won't spoil the enjoyment of viewers who may well go on to find the series quite addictive.

It's certainly more compelling than the latest Swedish thriller, Modus (BBC 4), which is as sleekly made as The Bridge or Beck or Wallander but seems to have been assembled from an identikit template of Scandi Noir dramas, right down to its chilly cityscapes and its second-hand storyline.

And the three-part Rillington Place (BBC1), which ends next Tuesday night, is basically a drawn-out and even grimmer drama than Richard Fleischer's original 1971 movie, 10 Rillington Place, in which Richard Attenborough was memorable as serial rapist and killer John Christie and John Hurt won deserved awards as the unfortunate Timothy Evans, who hanged for Christie's crimes.

In this remake, Tim Roth plays Christie and Samantha Morton is doomed wife Ethel, but they bring nothing new to the roles, and the viewer quickly becomes dispirited by the horrible glumness of it all.

A few weeks back I wrote with enthusiasm about the opening episode of Barry Devlin's wartime drama My Mother and Other Strangers (RTÉ1/BBC1) but somehow didn't feel compelled to watch all of the following episodes. Perhaps that's because it never quite transcended its soapish feel.

A superior soap, though, and somewhat reminiscent of Heartbeat or, indeed, of Devlin's own Ballykissangel. And this week's arresting final episode ended with a clear indication that lots of things in the lives of Rose, Michael, Emma and their Lough Neagh neighbours can only be resolved by a second series. Well, if Poldark can keep audiences wanting more...

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