Sunday 26 May 2019

Review: Can't Cope with womance that has finally run out of laughs

Aisling (Seána Kerslake) and Danielle (Nika McGuigan) in Can't Cope, Won't Cope
Aisling (Seána Kerslake) and Danielle (Nika McGuigan) in Can't Cope, Won't Cope

Damian Corless

Gay Byrne started out in broadcasting some 60 years ago and for a great chunk of that time he was the father confessor to a people trying to keep their feet in a shifting world. A poll in 1998, when he was still chairing the public forum of The Late Late Show, named him as both Ireland's most disliked individual and its most loved.

On Once More With Meaning (RTÉ1) there was just love, and truckloads of respect. The special programme revisited The Meaning Of Life, which ran for 13 series and gave Gaybo the chance to tackle big names on the big issues of life, the universe and everything.

The stellar guest list was testament in itself to the regard in which he is held. They came with no product to plug, just for what one called the "privilege" of a pow-wow with Gay. Many left having revealed themselves to an extent they'd never intended nor imagined. Brenda Fricker explained: "The subject (matter) was so big you couldn't prepare."

Princess Di's brother, Charles Spencer, said: "It was the interview I remember most in my life because it was such an intense experience." Bono recognised his "unusual mind for the most probing question". Michael Parkinson recalled studying Gay's technique, saying: "I used to marvel at the way he did it... trying to make other people look very interesting."

During Gaybo's long reign as undisputed ruler of the airways, a favourite taunt of his detractors was that he was unintellectual. Perhaps, but he had something greater in his locker. Earl Spencer hit the nail on the head, identifying his "extraordinary emotional intelligence". Brenda Fricker told how he could create a comfort zone for his interviewees that was "always kind but dangerous... He gives you that feeling of courage."

If Constance Smith had been blessed with just a little emotional intelligence, it's very possible that no one would ever ask the question "Constance who?". The Limerick-born actress could have been a star, but she never made it past being a contender. Constance Smith: Tragóid Hollywood (TG4) opened with footage of Smith presenting an Oscar at the 1952 Academy Awards alongside host Danny Kaye. That fleeting moment was to prove the high point of a career that began when she escaped a life of Dublin tenement misery by winning a beauty contest, and finally came to a sorry end when she was thrown in jail for stabbing her lover.

Tragóid Hollywood told an astonishing story with some striking parallels to these Me Too times, with movie mogul Darryl F Zanuck in the Harvey Weinstein role. Zanuck recruited Smith as a studio starlet and casting couch fodder, but the strong-minded Irishwoman wouldn't play ball. There were other producers and other studios and she might have saved her career by cultivating other alliances, but the heavily conflicted Connie just couldn't get on with people.

The final act in her Hollywood career came when she became pregnant by her actor husband Brian Forbes, and the studio forced her to have an abortion because motherhood was not in her contract. Plucked from squalor, Constance Smith ended in squalor, drinking rough with Irish down-and-outs in London's Soho. She died in 2003.

Drink figures large in two shows about bright young things that finished up their latest runs this week. Can't Cope, Won't Cope (RTÉ2) closed its second season on a distinct downer, with the self-absorbed womancers Aisling and Danielle fleeing the big smoke drinking cans on the train home with their tails between their legs. When the show first aired, it was bracketed with Derry Girls and The Young Offenders as proof that Irish TV comedy is in rude good health. But it never shared the joyous, madcap streak of the other two, and by now it has been squeezed dry of every last laugh.

As straight drama, however, it's far from a lost cause, once you get past some clunky right-on writing. The modern condition gets covered from every imaginable angle, from the morning-after pill to borderline alcoholism to LGBT issues, to the point where it seems there's a little too much box-ticking afoot, however well-intentioned.

One thing Can't Cope, Won't Cope demonstrates in spades is that today's Irish twentysomethings are as messed-up, directionless and hedonistic as their parents were at the same age. Those parents fell over in a lot of the same places, made similar life-changing misjudgments, and probably turned out okay. So, using Can't Cope... as a yardstick, you could easily conclude that the generation gap has shrunk almost to vanishing point. But then you turn on Made In Chelsea (Channel 4) and that generation gap widens to Grand Canyon proportions. To anyone raised on traditional TV conventions such as plot and dialogue, this guided tour around Sloane Square is a voyage into a chilling void.

Made In Chelsea had its end-of-season party this week, which consisted mostly of putting crude questions to actors pretending to be real people about their scripted on-off love lives. The makers call it 'structured reality', but there is nothing real about this ode to emptiness. Real life has action and feeling and the occasional spark of wit.

With Made In Chelsea every last trace of all these things has been carefully liposuctioned out. "I am, like, madly in love with you," one mannequin tells another with the deep-felt urgency of a girlfriend in a coma. To witness this show is to be constantly brought back to Dorothy Parker's wicked put-down of Katharine Hepburn, who "ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B". No one on Made In Chelsea gets close to B

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