Sunday 17 December 2017

TV review: Ferrets and furballs make RTE pet project best in show

Pet Island, RTE 2
* Girls, Sky Atlantic

Family affair: Kildare couple Jennifer Duggan and Martin Bailey, with their dogs, were some of the stars of RTE show 'Pet Island'.
Family affair: Kildare couple Jennifer Duggan and Martin Bailey, with their dogs, were some of the stars of RTE show 'Pet Island'.
Ed Power

Ed Power

Season one of Pet Island was a surprise hit for RTE, though quite why its success should have caught anyone off guard is a mystery.

If the internet has taught us anything across the past 15 years, it's that people adore animals - the fuzzier and more doe-eyed the better. Thus Pet Island - essentially a parade of cutesy critter clips with a few interviews tacked on - is the epitome of can't-fail telly. Whose heart doesn't melt at the sight of a ferret being taken for a walk in a miniature harness?

The ferret, named after famous ninja turtle Raphael, was the star of the first episode of the returning series. He was six-and-a-half years old - a regular Methuselah by the standards of tiny predatory mammals.

This turned out to be a sensitive point for owner Jacqueline Hopkins from Castlebar, who dissolved into tears as she explained the geriatric streak of fur might not make it to her marriage with bearded Daragh.

"Raffy won't be here," she sobbed. "That's the part you don't see with ferrets - what you have to deal with."

Daragh, whose introduction to ferrets came when several attempted to rest in his crotch area on an early sleepover at Jackie's, kept his counsel.

Here was human interest television as its most unashamedly big-hearted and emotional - a big squidgy marshmallow of a watch that paraded its sentimentality as a virtue. Even the most inveterate loather of animals will surely have felt a little tingle of tenderness.

It's easy to list the things RTE does badly. Comedy, chat shows, any drama that doesn't have 'Love/Hate' in the title. But Pet Island was an example of what the national broadcaster gets right - slight, sweet TV that you forget 10 seconds afterwards but which is in the moment endlessly endearing.

The success of these frothy factual offerings lies in the way they the hold a mirror up to the Irish psyche, addressing fundamental truths about who we are. If you want to peer into the soul of a nation, look at what we curl up on the couch to after a long day's toil.

Thus, where Room To Improve paints us as finicky and trenchant when it comes to floating partitions in our kitchens and bidets in our ensuite bathrooms, and Operation Transformation suggests we're generally flabby and not too bothered about appearing "beach ready", Pet Island celebrates our boundless passion for all things furry and sharp-toothed.

Some cliches, it is true, did present themselves. This was especially evident in the case of County Kildare "glamour" couple Martin and Jennifer, parading outside the Whitewater Shopping Centre in Newbridge as though navigating Fifth Avenue during New York Fashion Week. They were custodians of a pack of those yapping fur balls one imagines were bred specifically to sit in Paris Hilton's handbag. Yet there was something slightly unsettling about the inter-species dynamic, with Martin and Jennifer referring to one another as "Mammy" and "Daddy" in the presence of the dogs, as though this was a parent-child relationships rather than human-animal.

"He loves daddy," said Martin as he groomed a favourite dog before a big show. "He is very attached to mammy but loves his daddy."

A clumsier programme would have had its fun with the Martin and Jennifer - perhaps delving deeper into their eccentricities (Martin's amazing quiff deserves a half-hour broadcast of its own) or asking whether there was a void in their lives only five yapping (and presumably smelly) pooches could fill.

Thankfully Pet Island didn't want to be that kind of documentary - it came to bask in the good vibrations of its subjects, not sneer or jeer.

The closest to raw titillation was a discreet inquiry as to how Jackie and Martin squeezed in, ahem, "personal time" considering their army of canines had the run of the house.

"She's the best contraceptive ever," giggled Jennifer, referring to one especially clingy pooch. "I don't want to say too much." She had perhaps said too much already.

Here we may for once pat ourselves on the collective back. As already pointed out, RTE is below par at a lot.

Yet there's still an endearing innocence to much of the broadcaster's output which compares well with the "gotcha" tone of American and British television.

Consider that, on Channel 4, Pet Island would probably be called 'Britain's Weirdest Pet Owners', with the viewer invited to laugh at Jennifer and Martin as they swooshed around Newbridge.

Pet Island, in contrast, invited us to share in their enthusiasm, and relayed Jacqueline's upset at Raphael's reasonably imminent demise with respect. It was feel-good television not in the least embarrassed about focusing on the sunny side of life or painting its subjects in the most positive light possible.

From the sweet to the sour, the returning Girls was still cynical and exasperated - yet suddenly all grown up too. Series five of the Lena Dunham comedy of ill manners remains cheerfully misanthropic but now it must wrestle with a new challenge. How to acknowledge that its quartet of lead female characters have aged out of the youthful impetuosity of the show's early years?

Starting out, moochy millennials Hannah, Marny, Jessica and Shoshanna were kids adrift in the big city. Now they're in their late 20s, at the age when even the most wayward souls are getting their lives together.

The challenge, therefore, is to portray the protagonists in a new light - still spoiled, impetuous and whiny yet also capable of negotiating the world as properly functioning adults.

The new Girls won't change the opinion of anyone left cold by the earlier seasons, which essentially played out like Sex and the City having a Twitter feud with Curb Your Enthusiasm. This remains a super-bleak sitcom about selfish people often being unkind to one another for no apparent reason.

Yet with Dunham's unshowy turn as Hannah anchoring the drama, it has retained its appealingly dry humour even as it sends the characters off in pursuit of new relationships and actual grown-up careers (Hannah has a job as an English teacher, Marnie is married etc).

Girls is a comedy for people who, if they weren't laughing, would probably be crying. What will we do with ourselves when it's gone?

Ian O'Doherty is on leave

Irish Independent

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