Tuesday 19 March 2019

John Boland on TV: Fleabag is more fun than those rowdy teen girls in Derry

 

Return: the Derry Girls were discovering the differences between Catholics and Protestants
Return: the Derry Girls were discovering the differences between Catholics and Protestants

John Boland

The success of Fleabag's first season in 2016 and of Derry Girls in 2018 seemed to come out of nowhere, both series creating an immediate buzz by tapping into the comic possibilities of young women behaving badly.

Despite its backdrop of Northern Ireland in the early 1990s, Derry Girls (Channel 4) was the more cheerful of the two sitcoms, the four gobby Catholic teenage girls making the exuberant most of their straitened domestic circumstances. The critics loved it, as did viewers, but if truth be told, I remained a bit of an agnostic. Yes, it was funny, but it wasn't THAT funny.

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And now it's back for a second season, with creator Lisa McGee (Derry-born herself) still providing rude one-liners for her raucous lot - this week's opening episode finding them on a bridge-building exercise with local Protestant schoolboys they mainly just wanted to shag.

Again, rather than constantly laughing, I chuckled occasionally - at the smarmy young priest who'd had a crisis of faith and shacked up with a hairdresser who'd then dumped him; at the nun telling the class sneak, "You will go far in life, Jenny, but you will not be well liked"; and at the differences offered by the teenagers between Catholics and Protestants (the former like statues, the latter hate Abba).

But it was scattergun humour, and delivered so fast that I felt I was missing half the gags. I'll stay with it, though, if only in the hope of discovering what everyone else is raving about.

I'll certainly stay with Fleabag (BBC1), the brilliantly dark creation of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who then went on to achieve international fame as scriptwriter of the transgressive Killing Eve. But Fleabag may be her masterpiece, with this week's opening episode of the second season demonstrating that she hasn't lost her touch, either as writer or star performer.

Here was the restaurant dinner from hell, celebrating the upcoming nuptials of craven dad (Bill Paterson) and ghastly godmother (Olivia Colman), and attended also by uptight sister Claire, vile husband Martin and a reluctant Fleabag herself, still trying to manage the psychological, emotional and social demons that had so troubled her in the first season.

Also, there was an offbeat priest in civvies, wonderfully played by Dubliner Andrew Scott. "Did you always want to join the priesthood?" dad asked him. "Oh, f**k, no," he replied, before revealing that his brother was a paedophile. "I'm aware of the irony of that," he added.

The gruesomely polite chitchat around the dinner table ended with Fleabag punching Martin in the face and getting punched back, along with an unfortunate waitress, after Claire had a miscarriage in the women's toilet that Fleabag felt forced to claim as her own. You had to be there and I'm glad I was, not least for the closing taxi scene in which Claire remarked to Fleabag, "The priest is quite hot" and Fleabag replied, "So hot!" before giving the camera one of her trademark smirks. Terrific stuff and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

If Fleabag is edgy in the best way, Jerk (BBC1) is edgy in the worst. This new sitcom casts Tom Machell as Tim, a young man with cerebral palsy who causes consternation all around him as people constantly try to make allowances for his disability and his behaviour.

This is wrong on so many levels, not least in making Tim a thoroughly unpleasant character. Last year, There She Goes (BBC4) took an autistic young girl as the focal point of its family sitcom and was both funny and poignant about the challenges she and her parents had to contend with. Jerk, by contrast, is mind-bogglingly crass.

The Looming Tower (RTÉ2) is a 10-episode drama inspired by the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI that resulted in crucial intelligence being withheld that might have prevented 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This week's first two instalments were quite gripping, with Jeff Daniels in commanding form as the FBI's counter-terrorism chief, but most of the women were no more than compliant ciphers in a resolutely man's world - Annie Parisse in particular reduced to the demeaning role of adoring mistress.

Meanwhile, Richard Gere brings movie-star wattage to MotherFatherSon (BBC2), an eight-part drama in which he plays an icy media mogul so powerful he can decide who'll be the next British prime minister. Not Jacob Rees-Mogg, I trust. I thought this week's first episode wildly over the top, and it featured perhaps the daftest sex scene I've ever seen, but it was weirdly entertaining, too, with a good supporting performances from Helen McCrory as the mogul's estranged wife, Sarah Lancashire as the Labour leader on whom he might bestow his largesse, and Sinéad Cusack as a veteran investigative journalist probing a mysterious murder. The drama will either get more compelling or even sillier, but I'll wait until next week to decide whether it's worth my time.

In Dan Reed's three-hour, two-part documentary, Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me (Channel 4), James Safechuck told of how he'd been sexually groomed and abused by the singer when he was 10 years old, and Wade Robson recounted how the same had happened to him when he seven years old.

This controversial film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, has led to furious denials from the Jackson estate and outrage from diehard fans, but so stark and detailed were these accounts of being abused, and so eloquently matter-of-fact in their delivery, that it was impossible not to believe them.

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