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John Boland: RTÉ drama could learn a few lessons from US cop thriller

Reviews: Death and Nightingales, Taken Down, Mr Mercedes, Bad Blood, Barbra Streisand: Becoming an Icon


What a let-down: Taken Down failed to thrill during its six episodes

What a let-down: Taken Down failed to thrill during its six episodes

What a let-down: Taken Down failed to thrill during its six episodes

Two dramas came to grim conclusions on RTÉ1 this week, though Death and Nightingales only ended badly for its characters, while Taken Down left viewers feeling really cheesed off.

Or those viewers, anyway, who'd persevered with this drama throughout its six turgid episodes. Here was a thriller that didn't thrill, inhabited by characters made out of cardboard, and conducted at such a glacial pace that you could have taken the dog for a walk midway through every episode without missing anything.

The makers, we kept being told in RTÉ's publicity bumph, were the people who had brought us Love/Hate, which some of us never much liked (too many scumbags) but which at least had a furious energy that kept the storylines motoring along.

In Taken Down, though, the makers seemed so consumed with the plight of luckless asylum seekers in today's Ireland that they almost forgot about the case that was being investigated - the murder of Esme, who had been found battered at a bus stop in episode one.

The circumstances and details of this killing were finally revealed in a flashback this week - though, as far as I could make out, only to the viewer, the cops seemingly remaining as clueless about what was going on under their noses as they'd been throughout the whole series.

And as robotic, too. There was a feeble attempt to lend depth and complexity to chief cop Jen by lumbering her with a medical trauma, but this added nothing either to the drama or to our sense of Jen's character who, as played by Lynn Rafferty, ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.

Instead, the camera lingered lovingly over Abeni (Aissa Maiga), who was portrayed throughout as a long-suffering saint, the weight of the world on her shoulders as she provided for two sons by working as cleaner in a brothel.

But if she was too good to be true, the villains were also too stereotypical to be interestingly bad, and what the viewer was left with was a botched drama in which it was impossible to care about the characters or what was happening to them.

The pace wasn't any less glacial in Death and Nightingales, though at least its stark storyline made its own kind of sense, while the dialogue was arresting and its main characters were absorbing.

I thought that Jamie Dornan, as Beth's republican lover, would be one of these, but his role was sparse and hardly registered. Instead, the drama was carried by the love-hate relationship between Beth and her stepfather, with Ann Skelly and Matthew Rhys both outstanding as they confronted their bleak future together.

Meanwhile, the makers of Taken Down could learn a thing or two from Mr Mercedes (RTÉ2), whose penultimate episode screens on Monday night. Here you have a cranky old cop (Brendan Gleeson) so imbued with doubts, fears, failings and other recognisable human traits that you feel you really know him.

Here you also have a psychopathic killer (Harry Treadaway) into whose demented world you're so drawn that even when he's lying in a hospital bed with seemingly irreversible brain damage he makes you complicit in his terrifying inner life.

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And here you have, too, such splendid supporting players as Holland Taylor, Nancy Travis, Breeda Wool and Justine Lupe, all inhabiting characters so quirky that you look forward to their every appearance.

And not least you have a brilliantly plotted storyline, with twists and turns that keep you enthralled throughout every episode. No, I'm afraid RTÉ drama has a long way to go.

And while Bad Blood (Netflix) won't win many awards, at least this Montreal-set mafia saga should hold the attention if you're running out of things to watch.

You can amuse yourself in the first episode (the only one I've seen) by spotting the references to other, and mostly better, crime dramas. There's the voiceover straight out of GoodFellas, the close-up shaving scene from The Untouchables, the ominously lurking cars outside the gate from The Godfather, and even the elaborate birthday cake from Some Like It Hot.

The basic plotline seems similarly borrowed, with the city's main crime boss (Anthony La Paglia) trying to shore up his empire while fending off threats from upstart rivals. It's all a bit schlocky but it exerts a clammy sense of tension and may reward further viewing.

"She's a pain in the neck and she has no talent". That's what the famed Strasberg drama school gurus said of Barbra Streisand at the start of her career. Their verdict deserves to go down in history along with the Decca executive's judgment that The Beatles were "just another guitar band" and the Hollywood agent's view of a young Fred Astaire: "Can't sing. Can't act. Can dance a little".

The story was told in Barbra Streisand: Becoming an Icon (BBC4), an engrossing profile of the Brooklyn-born Jewish girl whose father died when she was a baby and whose witheringly stern mother saw her leaving home as a teenager for the bright lights of Manhattan.

Big-nosed and gawky, she chose to celebrate her unconventional looks (what Camille Paglia called her "uncompromising Jewishness"), and by her early twenties she was insisting on full artistic control over her various singing and acting projects.

Lady Gaga, how are ye.

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