Pat Stacey: It was a good year for TV, even if Love/Hate did let us down in the end
It would be easy to describe the year soon to depart as a chequered one, except nothing about television in 2013 was ever that black and white.
One of the few incontrovertible facts is that in terms of comedy, 2013 belonged – as did the year before – to Brendan O’Carroll. The critics hated Mrs Brown’s Boys from the start but audiences here and in the UK loved it.
Last year’s Christmas episodes drew nearly a million viewers on RTE One and between 11 and 12 million on BBC One; this year’s brace of seasonal specials will have surely repeated the trick.
Less happily for TV comedy in general, its success sparked a craze in the BBC for ‘old-style’, studio-based sitcoms, including the limp Citizen Khan and the atrocious, swiftly-cancelled The Wright Way. The |one positive offshoot of this trend was |the lovely Count Arthur Strong on BBC Two.
Mrs Brown is a joint effort between BBC Scotland and RTE, and indeed co-productions gave some reflected glory to the beleaguered national broadcaster over the past year. RTE had a hand, however lightly felt, in The Fall, the most chilling thriller of 2013.
The most talked-about Irish drama of the year was, of course, Love/Hate – and I’m not referring to that ‘dead’ cat nonsense, but to the widespread feeling that it dropped the ball this fourth season.
After a drum-tight opening episode, Love/Hate lost the focus and urgency that made the previous seasons such riveting viewing. Promising storylines were allowed to fizzle out, strong, established characters were underused and a raft of sketchy new ones introduced.
The result was a routine cops ‘n’ robbers yarn that played out like an off the peg version of The Wire. Tediously repetitive shots of scudding clouds, joyless sex and Nidge getting in and out of his car every few minutes gave it a half-finished feel.
In the Stupidest Decisions of the Year category, RTE’s dropping of Premiership Soccer Saturday to save the miserly sum of €1.8m takes top spot, closely followed by the BBC’s axing of the excellent Ripper Street. That last one is bad news for the local technicians and actors involved in its Dublin shoot.
With the exception of TV3’s very funny On the Couch – another positive example of the modest but steady improvement in the channel’s original content – |home-produced comedy was as dismal as ever, with RTE squandering its rib-tickling resources on rubbish like Damo & Ivor, Republic of Telly and various vehicles for Jennifer Maguire.
The national broadcaster also continued to rely on lightweight, throwaway documentaries and dreary lifestyle/cookery/gardening/property shows to fill airtime (Room to Improve? as primetime Sunday material? I don’t think so).
Things looked brighter across the sea. Though still dominated by rubbish reality shows and Downton Abbey – which inspired, if that’s the word, a fresh rash of frocks-and-bonnets frippery (Mr |Selfridge, The Paradise) – ITV surprised everyone by producing a run of excellent dramas, toplined by the superb Broadchurch with David Tennant and Olivia Colman.
The year also saw the creation of a bona fide new star – the marvellous Rory Kinnear, who got to show off his astonishing range in the aforementioned Count Arthur Strong, Channel 4’s bleakly brilliant Southcliffe – another thriller that typified the dark tone of 2013 – and ITV’s Lucan.
The influence of subtitled drama, meanwhile, continued to be strongly |felt. Borgen returned to BBC Four for a |final throw of the dice, Channel Four aired its first subtitled import in nearly two decades, the creepy French occult drama The Returned, and even RTE Two got in on the act by screening German WWII miniseries Generation War ahead of the BBC.
Despite the latter’s flaws, including an over-dependence on convenient coincidence, it was quality drama and points to a niche opportunity for a channel that has no sense of direction.
I hadn’t expected much from 2013, yet its deathbed days find television in general in a much healthier condition than we could have hoped for this time last year.