Tuesday 17 October 2017

Television: True Detectives Matthew and Woody lead us down false path

True detectives: Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghy
True detectives: Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghy

John Boland

Starring Matthew McConaghy and Woody Harrelson, True Detective (Sky Atlantic) continues the trend whereby Hollywood A-listers, who wouldn't have been seen dead doing TV a decade ago, now positively crave the opportunities and kudos provided by high-profile cable drama.

As it happens, though, McConaghy – who may well walk off with the best actor Oscar tomorrow night for his role in Dallas Buyers Club – wasn't always an A-lister. Indeed, he was regarded until recently as something of a Hollywood joke, the bland beefcake foil to Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson in a succession of dopey rom coms.

His rehabilitation began with a commandingly witty lead performance in 2011's The Lincoln Lawyer and since then, McConaghy has become a critic's darling in such determinedly left-field movies as Killer Joe, Mud and Dallas Buyers Club.

It's a pity then he was something of a letdown in the opening episode of True Detective, which itself was something of a letdown – not that you'd know from most of the American critics, who've already ecstatically greeted it as this year's answer to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.

In fact, it looks set to be a good deal more formulaic and portentous than either of those, despite an intriguing framing device whereby two cops are being separately queried about a Louisiana murder case they supposedly solved 17 years earlier. Time has not been kind to either of them – fresh-faced family man Marty (Harrelson) has become flabby and soured, while nihilistic loner Rust (McConaghy) has turned into an even more gaunt and bitter shell of his former self.

Why that's so remains to be revealed in this eight-part series, as does the truth about their investigation into the ritualistic killing of a woman, and viewers are primed for some gruesome moments, too, though they're unlikely to find anything more shocking than the spectacle of a McConaghey who's so emaciated as to be almost unrecognisable and whose downbeat playing goes against the grain of this actor's expansive gifts.

And the first episode showed no interest in its women characters other than as fetishised sexual victims or as put-upon spouses – Michelle Monaghan was quite wasted as Marty's wife. This was a man's world, with lots of macho posturing that was left unexamined, and with lots of cliched borrowings, too, the eerie rural crime scene being straight out of an episode of the Hannibal TV series.

Perhaps the mood will become freer and more interesting as the series proceeds, but on the evidence of this opening episode, which took itself very seriously indeed, I wouldn't bet on it.

By contrast, the second instalment of Quirke (RTÉ1) was a good deal more convincing and congenial than the first, partly because the plotting was a lot less clunky and partly because the principal characters were allowed to develop beyond our previous acquaintance with them.

In brief, we got to know them better and liked what we were learning. Quirke still had major issues with his venal stepfather, but this led to a satisfying dinner-table spat that expanded our understanding of both men. Quirke and his sister-in-law embarked on a clandestine relationship that was persuasively depicted, while even Quirke's shifty brother-in-law showed himself to be worthy of our sympathy. And young Phoebe's infatuation with a slimy psycho was so true to her trusting nature that we genuinely feared for her.

And the evocation of a vanished Dublin, which was the first instalment's main asset, was even more striking here – as a student I'd climbed the ill-lit stairs of that Harcourt Street house of flats on more than a few occasions, while in the smoke-saturated bars that Quirke favoured after a long day at his dissecting table I searched for my ghostly presence.

In the latest Channel 4 property series, Kirstie's Best of Both Worlds, the tireless and somewhat tiresome Kirstie Allsop was trying to find a house in Belfast that would please both young architect Lindsay, who favoured country living, and radiotherapist spouse Grace, who desired the hustle and bustle of city living.

Such anyway was Kirstie's pitch. "Rarely has there been such an obvious conflict between what two people want," she maintained, even though neither Lindsay nor Grace – both of them meekly docile in Kirstie's pushy presence – seemed unduly adamant about where they lived. At the end, they opted for a house near Grace's parents in Lurgan.

Then the deal fell through and the disappointed couple opted for somewhere else, leading Kirstie to exclaim "Don't you just love a happy ending!" What planet is she on? The planet that gives her yet another property show, I suppose.

In The Necessary War (BBC2), journalist and historian Max Hastings was intent on countering "the Blackadder take on history" which, in Hastings's view, maintained that World War One was a futile slaughterhouse overseen by "idiot commanders devoid of brains".

Hastings's thesis was that German aggression and territorial ambitions made British involvement mandatory and to this end he enlisted the support of various historians who agreed with him.

It made for a provocative and engrossing film, even if by its end you weren't entirely persuaded by his central argument.


At your service, but feel free to ignore us

At Your Service (RTÉ1) ended its current run with flamboyant hoteliers Francis and John Brennan descending on the 180-room West County Hotel in Ennis, which had gone into receivership until acquired by young Patrick Treacy.

Patrick had allowed himself a €600,000 budget to bring the place up to scratch and the concerned siblings gave him their hard-earned professional advice on how to spend the money wisely – mainly on a co-ordinated overall design plan.

Patrick, though, ignored their advice and got the work done in piecemeal fashion, leaving Francis and John no option but to acknowledge his achievement. So how's the revamped hotel doing? Thriving, I trust, though this series has never bothered with such trivial matters.

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