Sunday 25 February 2018

It's quite a while since RTÉ has been at your service...

Licence to fill: Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul, which offered something interesting beyond the diet of lifestyle programmes on RTE
Licence to fill: Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul, which offered something interesting beyond the diet of lifestyle programmes on RTE

John Boland

RTÉ has always boasted of its role as a public service broadcaster, but if that was ever the case it's long ceased to be so.

To be honest, I've never been entirely clear what the phrase means, though I assume it entails performing a service that's of benefit to the public, whether intellectually or culturally or both - a criterion that's not met by the plethora of vacuous lifestyle programmes to which our national broadcaster has become increasingly addicted.

And somehow I doubt if the notion of public service includes the greenlighting of a show like Home of the Year, in which a panel of judges drool over state-of-the-art house renovations that have been entered in competition by their proud owners and that the vast majority of viewers couldn't even dream of undertaking.

That was only one of a rake of lifestyle programme in this week's RTÉ schedules, and the fact that most of them were repeats (Domestic Divas, Feargal Quinn's Retail Therapy, At Your Service, The Family Project, Kitchen Hero) should make you wonder what exactly RTÉ is doing with your licence fee.

Indeed, since the beginning of the year, I can recall only three home-produced RTÉ programmes that honourably met a public service remit: Richard Curran's film on the rural-urban divide, Mick Peelo's report on the career of Pope Francis and the recent documentary on punishment attacks in the North.

Yes, there was an intriguing Prime Time undercover report this week on a transatlantic outfit which is trying to flog industrial bleach as a cure-all for every ailment known to mankind, but you'd want to have been extremely gullible in the first place to succumb to the sales pitches of these people, and so the report came across as more as an awful warning to the credulously desperate than as anything meaningful to ordinary sensible viewers.

That was really it, though, from RTÉ, which also neglected to tell us that its much-trumpeted Easter Sunday documentary on a local 24-hour passion play was a repeat.

And so the viewer who was in search of something enlightening or amusing or even vaguely interesting to watch had to look elsewhere among the channels. In particular, I looked at the final episode of Better Call Saul, which online service Netflix has been drip-feeding fans over the last 10 weeks - thus breaking its House of Cards policy in which all episodes are released at the same time.

But Better Call Saul was well worth the weekly wait. I hadn't held out much hopes for a show about the past life of a minor character from Breaking Bad, but the fact that Vince Gilligan, the man responsible for that terrific series, remained at the helm here was encouraging, and viewers were duly rewarded.

The episodes veered between the darkly comic and the almost unbearably tense (a desert standoff in which the main character argued for his life was a high point), and even the most subsidiary roles were satisfyingly fleshed out - unlike the third season of House of Cards, in which the minor players seemed to be merely disposable plot devices.

Thus, while Bob Odenkirk as shyster lawyer Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman was the standout player, you relished every scene that involved Rhea Seehorn as his former girlfriend and current pal, Michael McKean as his phobic and finally treacherous brother, and Jonathan Banks as the toll-booth operator with a lethally criminal other life.

Quirky and hugely engaging, the series also kept you guessing about where it was going in every episode. The same can't be said about Poldark (BBC1), though this reboot of a 1970s BBC drama has been offering real pleasures of its own - not least in its assured embrace of a traditional storyline and romantic characters, all against the background of a stunning Cornish landscape.

Dubliner Aidan Turner has been the find here, women viewers (and probably some men, too) swooning over his dashing turn as the hero, though I'm also quite smitten by Eleanor Tomlinson as his flame-haired love Demelza. All in all, a satisfyingly old-fashioned drama enacted with real confidence and style.

The return of Vera (UTV Ireland) was less of a cause for celebration, though fans of such police procedurals as Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost and Midsomer Murders probably won't have been disappointed.

Brenda Blethyn reprised her role as the detective inspector tasked with solving dastardly crimes in Northumberland, but I'm afraid I've always thought the landscape in which she does her detecting more interesting than her curmudgeonly character. Still, if you've two hours to spare...

The third season of Moone Boy (Sky 1) also came to an end, though with an episode that was so intent on being whimsically surreal that it forgot to be funny.

Nonetheless, it's been charming throughout and the people of Boyle should be properly grateful to creator, co-writer and co-star Chris O'Dowd for making their town and its inhabitants so beguiling.

There was charm, too, in the final episode of Caribbean with Simon Reeve (BBC2), though not when he arrived in Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world - one every hour. Indeed, in this land of vicious drug-gang wars, two policemen were shot dead while the presenter was on night patrol with their colleagues.

Reeve couldn't help feeling that the country and its inhabitants were "the victims of America's demand for drugs", and he'd been just as forthright in his social commentary throughout this excellent series.

Meanwhile, in Meth and Madness in Mexico (BBC3), Stacey Dooley was also confronting the lethal drug trade and was also out on patrol with the police. Indeed, she looked even more the innocent abroad than Simon Reeve, though she somewhat overplayed the naïve outsider, as if she'd just bunked off from a school outing and hadn't quite realised where she'd landed herself.

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