Wednesday 21 March 2018

Television: It's Eurovision - so let's do the timewarp again

Euro trash: Azerbaijan's Samra, center, performs 'Miracle' during the first Eurovision semifinal in Stockholm earlier this week.
Euro trash: Azerbaijan's Samra, center, performs 'Miracle' during the first Eurovision semifinal in Stockholm earlier this week.
The Simpsons

Damian Corless

Finally cleared for viewing in Britain following the completion of the disaster inquest two weeks ago, the two-year-old ESPN/BBC documentary Hillsborough had nothing to offer by way of surprises, but was still deeply shocking. A saga of conspiracy, collusion, cover-up and smear campaign that went to the very top of the British Establishment, it was harrowing, unforgettable fare.

Phil Scraton, the man who pieced together much of the sordid jigsaw, got closest to the human heart of the matter, remarking: "What I witnessed was the distress and depression associated with injustice that exacerbated bereavement; deep, hurtful, painful suffering over a long period of time; people taking their own lives; people dying prematurely; people broken by the struggle for justice."

There was despair aplenty too in Veronica Guerin: A Legacy (RTÉ1), a tribute to the investigative journalist murdered 20 years ago next month. The most material part of her legacy, established in direct response to her killing, was the Criminal Assets Bureau. We were told that as of the end of 2014, CAB had frozen criminal assets of €107m and hit gangland figures with tax assessments and penalties totalling €754m. And yet, as Veronica's widower Graham Turley lamented: "20 years down the road, we're back to stage one where there's shootings on the street every day of the week."

Over the past two decades, gangland has gone multinational. One contributor made the blindingly obvious statement that an EU policing pact would go some way towards rectifying the situation. Blindingly obvious, but not happening.

The EU, originally the Common Market, was created in 1957 with the principal aim of ensuring that the horrors of two world wars between European states could never happen again. When Ireland first hosted the Eurovision Song Contest 45 years ago in 1971, a protest group called the RTÉ Workers' Anti-Redundancy Committee derided the songfest as "the Common Market applied to light music". Ireland was shortly to vote on joining the EEC and a slew of protest groups targeted the contest, staged at Dublin's Gaiety. The agitators included Sinn Féin (anti-EEC), Conradh Na Gaeilge (anti-pop music), the Celtic League (anti-singing in English) and the National Athletic & Cycling Association, who were unhappy with the paucity of bicycle-related programming on RTÉ.

The big hit of that Eurovision with the Irish media was the UK entrant Clodagh Rogers, who set pulses racing in Stephen's Green parading in hot-pants that, according to one reporter, "could hardly have been more than nine inches from top to bottom".

Hot-pants were much in evidence for the first semi-final of this year's Eurovision in Stockholm (RTÉ2). Eurovision remains a true enigma. For all its slick, modern production values it remains timewarped sometime around 1971, or, more precisely, in that little capsule of 1977 that will forever be 'Yes Sir, I Can Boogie' by Baccara, the archetypal Eurovision song that was never in the contest. Marty Whelan did his reliably suave commentary job, but the true and worthy successor to Wogan, Graham Norton, will steal home viewers for tonight's final on BBC1.

Also something of an enigma is Ten Things To Know About which started this week on RTÉ1. The subject of episode one was Fear, and the enigmatic question it raised was: "Why did RTÉ spend good money making this fluff and nonsense?" Presented by Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, Katriona Devereux and Jonathan McCrea, this was ill-conceived pap-psychology at its dullest, peppered with glaringly obvious statements such as "fear is a very real emotion that we all experience at some point in our lives", and "it makes so much sense if you're afraid of spiders to avoid spiders". Well, duh. McCrea hosts one of the most informative and intelligent shows on radio, Newstalk's science-related Futureproof. Futureproof is everything that Ten Things wants to be but is not.

Limitless (Sky1) is great fun. Starring Jake McDorman as Brian Finch, a layabout musician whose life takes a startling turn, it started out as a novel, The Dark Fields, by Dubliner Alan Glynn before becoming a fine big-screen thriller starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. The spin-off TV series recasts Cooper in the occasional cameo as a sinister senator running for the White House, and injects frequent sunbursts of unexpected comedy involving surreal fantasy sequences. The storyline revolves around the central character's exposure to a miracle drug, NZT, which for 12-hour periods unlocks the full potential of his brain, turning him from dropout zero to problem-solving hero. Brian's recurring dilemma is that the evil senator has a secret hold over him and expects him to spy on his new employers, the FBI. A complex blend of drama and comedy - or dramedy, as its makers like to call it - Limitless is the smartest of smart TV.

The inspirational David Attenborough turned 90 this week and Attenborough's Life That Glows (BBC2), which explored bioluminescence in nature was the latest in a long line of triumphs. The man transmits a sense of wonder that is infectious and joyous. He is a priceless treasure. Long may he continue to enrich our lives.

In With A Bang, Out With A Wimper

The Simpsons

The long slow decline of The Simpsons (Sky1/RTÉ2) has been sad to behold. Now 27 years old, it has been a shadow of its glorious former self for well more than a decade. In 1999, Time magazine conducted a poll to mark the end of TV's first century. The Simpsons was lauded as the best TV show of all time. If you listened out for even a single dissenting voice, the sound of silence said it all. At that point the cartoon series had just celebrated its 10th birthday. Looking back, when they reached that landmark, the makers should have started planning the show's retirement. But by then this Springfield family of yellow, eight-fingered mutants had become such a cash-cow that quantity was perhaps always going to gradually edge out quality.

The Simpsons took up residence at the heart of global popular culture by absorbing, reflecting and tickling that culture in ways no-one seemed to have thought of before. Fans of Monty Python might take issue, but there was much truth in the words of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane when he said: "The Simpsons did everything first. You think you've hit on a great gag and The Simpsons have always been there first."

That was then, this is now.

Of late, The Simpsons has found itself straying into places it would have avoided like the plague in its heyday, incorporating crudity that debases a legacy that for many seasons seemed set to go down in TV history as peerless.

There's a lesson here to be learned by the makers of another comedy show that once made everything else look old and second-rate. Centred on the autistic savant Sheldon Cooper (played brilliantly by Jim Parsons) and the deeply unlikely romance between super-nerd Leonard Hofstadter and delectable sex-bomb Penny, The Big Bang Theory was outstanding for its first three series and very good for the next three. Not any more. Now 10 years old, the show has become jaded and over-sentimental while the two male leads, both playing roles 10 years younger than their actual age, are showing off-putting signs of wear and tear. Time to quit while they're still ahead of where The Simpsons currently find themselves

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