Monday 21 October 2019

John Boland: The best TV of 2018 – dramatic highs more than made up for a few lows

Brendan Gleeson (left) in Mr Mercedes
Brendan Gleeson (left) in Mr Mercedes
Jodie Comer in Killing Eve
RTÉ's Great Lighthouses of Ireland

John Boland

Last October, in the week when Ireland decided blasphemy no longer had any place in its Constitution, Podge asked Rodge to say something that would have been deemed blasphemous a few days earlier.

"Amy Huberman isn't funny" was his response, and certainly her sitcom Finding Joy (RTÉ1) was no laughing matter - unlike Women on the Verge, which aired at the same time on RTÉ2 and which boasted a smart script by Sharon Horgan and Lorna Martin, and a very droll central turn from Kerry Condon.

Indeed, it wasn't to be Huberman's year, though she can't be blamed for the silly scenarios and clunky dialogue that gave her nothing to work with in Striking Out (RTÉ1), the farcically inept legal drama which mysteriously had been granted a second season.

But there was much to please in the last 12 months, not least in drama, where new offerings vied with old reliables for the viewer's attention. Among the former, the three-part A Very English Scandal (BBC1) was outstanding, wittily scripted and with terrific playing from Hugh Grant as hapless liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, who was undone by sexual indiscretions in the Britain of the 1970s.

Jodie Comer in Killing Eve
Jodie Comer in Killing Eve

The blood-soaked Killing Eve (RTÉ2) was great fun, too, at least for most of its eight episodes, with a black-comedy script from Phoebe Waller-Bridge and a mesmerising turn from Jodie Comer as the blithe psychopath being pursued by MI6 operative Sandra Oh.

Also mesmeric was Florence Pugh in the BBC1 adaptation of John le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl. The storyline may have been somewhat underpowered and the basic premise (actress infiltrates terrorist group) a bit farfetched, but Pugh brought both sassiness and real heart to her flimsy role and commanded every scene she was in.

So, too, did Ben Chaplin in Press (BBC1). Seldom has sleaze seemed so beguiling and you could sense the actor's glee in his bravura turn as an unscrupulous, conniving, treacherous but supremely charismatic tabloid editor. A pity that the drama itself wasn't in the same league.

Netflix's best-kept secret of the year was French comedy-drama series Call My Agent!. Amusing and absorbing about the movie business and with well-drawn characters, it also featured the likes of Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Adjani and Nathalie Baye playing themselves as agency clients. If you haven't yet come across this series, you're in for a festive treat.

Bodyguard (BBC1) was among the year's most talked-about thrillers, but after a riveting start it became increasingly preposterous.

By contrast, the Irish-made rural mystery Blood (Virgin One), scripted by Sophie Petzal and directed by Lisa Mulcahy, was a slow burner that exerted a genuine grip - unlike RTÉ1's much-publicised Taken Down, which was just dogged and dreary.

RTÉ's Great Lighthouses of Ireland
RTÉ's Great Lighthouses of Ireland

And BBC2 screened an excellent production of Hamlet, persuasively set in a contemporary surveillance state and with Dublin actor Andrew Scott (so good as Moriarty in Sherlock) showing great range and finding real depth in his vibrant take on the tormented prince.

A pulsating season of Spiral (BBC4) reacquainted us with Caroline Proust and her motley crew of Parisian cops, while a fourth season of the incomparable Better Call Saul (Netflix) ended bleakly with dodgy lawyer Jimmy finally succumbing to his dark side.

But for me the year's best drama, just as last year, was Mr Mercedes, adapted from Stephen King and now ending its second season on RTÉ2. Why this American cable drama isn't globally renowned remains a mystery, but all the more credit to RTÉ for spotting its quality. Unsettling and utterly absorbing, and with brilliant playing from Brendan Gleeson as the troubled hero and Harry Treadaway as his psychopathic nemesis.

Elsewhere, RTÉ was at its most assured in the sporting arena, and its coverage of this year's football World Cup was outstanding, the station's knowledgeable and incisive pundits in a different league from their counterparts on the BBC and ITV. Oh, and the competition itself was the best in decades, with nearly every match a thriller.

There were some first-rate documentaries on RTÉ, too, perhaps most notably the recent two-parter Whistleblower, in which the scandalous treatment of garda Maurice McCabe by his superiors was set out lucidly and rivetingly by journalist Katie Hannon.

I was also much taken by John Downes's film Oxmantown Road, which addressed issues of property, community and social history by focusing on one particular street north of the Liffey and introducing viewers to its inhabitants, whether newly arrived or living there all their lives.

And Great Lighthouses of Ireland told lots of absorbing stories, while also looking sensational - the series made you want to visit all the spectacular locations and get up close to their architectural marvels.

There were some fine BBC2 documentaries, too, most strikingly - and chillingly - House of Assad, which traced the history of Syria's ruling dynasty and how its current despot moved from a humanitarian medical career in London to running a regime of barbaric slaughter back in his homeland.

And Netflix gave us The Staircase, somewhat too long at 13 episodes, but seldom less than compelling in following the trial and conviction of an American journalist who had been accused of killing his wife and who spent years in prison before being finally released on appeal. His guilt or innocence remained a question the series couldn't answer, though it raised many questions about the American justice system.

And it was the year, too, in which Anthony Bourdain died by his own hand. Looking at his travel series, Parts Unknown (Netflix), this was difficult to credit - he seemed so vibrantly alive and open to experience.

Pay tribute to his memory by watching these Netflix shows, which are crammed with insights, not just about food or culture but about the spirit of all the places he visited throughout his globetrotting career. He really was a terrific communicator.

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