Thursday 17 August 2017

Television: Horrors of the Handmaids and trying to keep up with Donal

Dystopia: The Handmaid's Tale is disquieting with ravishing visual imagery
Dystopia: The Handmaid's Tale is disquieting with ravishing visual imagery

John Boland

In Leo Varadkar's successful Fine Gael leadership bid, he campaigned on behalf of those "who get up early in the morning", which left out most of the elderly, the infirm, the unemployed and the slacker-minded, none of whom were likely to make it in Leo's brave new Ireland.

But never mind, and anyway Leo has a soul brother in Donal Skehan, whose latest culinary show is clearly aimed at the same rise-with-the-lark demographic. "We all lead busy lives," he announced at the outset of Donal's Meals in Minutes (RTÉ1) and that's why he was about to present "a kitchen survival guide to modern life".

Indeed, as he revealed to us, "life can be complicated" and so he was embarked on a mission to "make things simple" when it came to cooking. You may have thought that Delia Smith had been doing just that decades ago and indeed that How to Cook Well with Rory O'Connell, which preceded Donal's show on Tuesday night, was also commendably unfussy, but, hey, Rory's a middle-aged guy with glasses and thus isn't one tenth as cool as Donal.

But Donal's "meals in minutes" promise wasn't quite accurate, given that his one-pot veggie paella took 25 minutes to bring to the table and his Thai green veggie stew 15 minutes. What speed there was took place in his delivery, which raced through the ingredients and cooking methods at such a lick that I hadn't a clue what he was doing and wondered instead if he had a taxi ticking away outside the studio.

At the end, he timed himself as he concocted a five-minute griddled steak dish and he was as thrilled as an approval-seeking schoolboy when he beat the clock by a couple of seconds. This viewer, though, remained less than thrilled, even if Leo would applaud.

On the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' most famous album, composer Howard Goodall presented Sgt Pepper's Musical Revolution (BBC2) and conductor Charles Hazlewood selected songs for My Beatles Black Album (Sky Arts), both of them earnestly demonstrating that butterflies can indeed be broken on wheels.

Goodall used all his musicological knowledge to dissect what was going on in the songs, which merely called to mind Swift's observation that "earnest commentators view in Homer more than Homer knew". Anyway, dare one say it, Sgt Pepper is a very patchy album, with quite a few inferior songs in among the classics.

Hazlewood, for his part, came up with 12 personal favourites from post-Beatles solo albums by the Fab Four, expecting us to agree that Ringo's 'It Don't Come Easy', George's 'Wah-Wah', John's 'God' and Paul's 'Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey' were of classic status. I could pick any number of terrific songs from these solo albums, but hardly any of them featured here.

Bill Cosby: Fall of an American Icon (BBC2) was timed to coincide with this week's hearing of alleged sexual assault against the American comedian. Under Irish law, a comparable film couldn't be shown here ahead of a verdict, and indeed it turned out to be utterly damning as various women spoke about their claimed ordeals at the hands of a man most Americans had thought to be "a great role model, a great father, a great husband and a great entertainer". It made for chilling viewing.

Fictional drama dominated the rest of the week, with Shots Fired (Fox) inverting the current real-life American norm by focusing on an investigation into the shooting of a white student by a black cop - this happening in a racially-charged town in North Carolina where a few days earlier the shooting of a young black man by a white cop had been covered up. The premise is interesting but this week's opening episode was full of earnest speechifying and soapy sentiments. Richard Dreyfuss featured as a local businessman, while Helen Hunt played the state governor, but the series will need more than minor star wattage if it's to maintain viewer interest.

The opening two episodes of Cardinal (BBC4) were a good deal more intriguing and if it weren't for the Canadian accents speaking in English, you'd swear you were watching a Scandi noir.

Bleak wintry landscapes? Check. Bodies of girls found in the snow? Check. Grizzled cop with bad attitude and murky past? Check. Local people with secrets to hide? Check.

Yet if it all sounds very derivative, Billy Campbell was persuasive as the main cop, Karine Vanasse was gritty as the new police partner sent by Internal Affairs to spy on him, and the murder mystery was quite engrossing. Certainly worth a further look tonight.

And The Handmaid's Tale (Channel 4) continues to be disquieting, with ravishing visual tableaux only accentuating the horrors and terrors inflicted on main character Offred and her fellow female slaves.

Yet there's subversive, indeed necessary, humour in her voiceover. In the first episode she deemed one of the other handmaids to be "a pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass". And this week, while being again ritually raped by her glum commander, she stared at the ceiling while thinking "I wish he'd hurry the f**k up".

You're grateful for such moments in a grim tale that looks set to get even grimmer as it progresses.

Grim isn't a word you'd use about Better Call Saul (Netflix), though its mood is getting darker as amiable shyster Jimmy begins to morph into the Saul Goodman who'll become such a shady figure in Breaking Bad.

There are only a couple of episodes to go before that happens and I'll be sad when it does because the three seasons of this show have been marvellous.

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