It's back with a bang -- RTE series that would make Scorsese proud
'LOVE/Hate', RTE's crime drama, returns tomorrow evening with an hour of gruelling, exhilarating, absolutely riveting television. Watching a preview DVD of this episode, one man and one piece of work came to mind: Martin Scorsese's 'The Departed'.
Yes, 'Love/Hate' really is so good that it stands comparison with the great director's Oscar-winning film about Irish mobsters tearing up Boston. And it has the same tone, a massive energy propelling the viewer through a dangerous underworld where anything can and often does happen -- and it's usually bad.
It's surely the best TV drama this country has ever produced: 'Love/Hate' provides fantastic entertainment, but on a deeper level, reaches almost Shakespearean heights in theme and character.
In Sunday's season-three opener, gang boss Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) surveys the Dublin crime scene as lord and king. Having disposed of John Boy, he now rules the rackets with a mixture of cold-eyed ruthlessness and shrewd diplomacy.
Things go awry when a local IRA unit mistakenly beats one of Nidge's dealers. Revenge is taken and Nidge smooths the waters by going on a St Patrick's Day binge of Rabelaisian dimensions with an unhinged IRA boss and his son. A night of intoxication follows, which culminates in a shock that would be unfair to reveal.
It's tour-de-force television. You find yourself tensed up, breath held, wincing with dread as each turn brings a seemingly certain doom one step closer.
Even better, 'Love/Hate' somehow manages to broaden out the story into an examination of these men and what they do.
It's not just representing their world and showing it to the viewer, as brilliantly as that is done; the show also explores the motivations behind their actions and the effect on the people they know and wider society.
In short, 'Love/Hate' is asking the most simple and most profound question there is: what does it all mean? One scene at the end of season two shows Nidge, John Boy and Darren staring into, respectively, a switched-off TV, a CCTV screen and a mirror. As Vaughan-Lawlor put it to me when I interviewed him recently for the 'RTE Guide': "They're looking into the abyss of their souls: examining their consciences -- and their existence."
One particularly pleasing thing about 'Love/Hate' is how it has evolved from the first, four-part series (the subsequent two each have six episodes).
That first season felt more flimsy, almost inconsequential, compared to what's followed. Darren was a bit too pretty, the violence and edge seemed a mite forced, and most damagingly, in common with a lot of RTE drama, not a whole lot seemed to actually happen.
Now you look back and think, they were just getting warmed up.
Scriptwriter Stuart Carolan, director David Caffrey and their great cast have cranked up through the gears at a ferocious pace ever since.
If that universe could be said to have a centre, it would be Nidge. He's the centre of gravity -- everything and everyone is pulled towards him. Not just in the literal sense that he's the gang leader, but in terms of the narrative arc over three seasons. Looked at from one angle, the story has been leading towards Nidge's ascension, and subsequent troubles, since the get-go.
He's a fantastic creation, played with subtlety and power by Vaughan-Lawlor. To name-check another iconic American mob drama, Nidge is like Ireland's answer to Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather'.
He may not look it, with his scobie hairstyle and shiny tracksuits; he certainly doesn't sound it, with that sharp Dubbalin accent you could use to cut out lines of coke.
But as with Michael, you get the sense that Nidge isn't just another brainless scumbag with a death wish. It feels as though he's been led to this point, and this life, by (mis)fortune; in a parallel world he'd be a regular guy, leading a decent life.
RTE often gets it very wrong, but here their aim is dead-bang.