Friday 20 September 2019

Review: RTÉ fails to make compelling drama out of refugee crisis with Taken Down


Tough competition: Orla Fitzgerald as Niamh and Lynn Rafferty as Jen in Taken Down. Photo by Bernard Walsh
Tough competition: Orla Fitzgerald as Niamh and Lynn Rafferty as Jen in Taken Down. Photo by Bernard Walsh

John Boland

When it comes to drama, RTÉ's track record has always been erratic, to say the least, and for every Love/Hate there have been five Striking Outs.

This is the country that produced Wilde, Shaw, Synge, O'Casey, Beckett, Friel, Murphy, Roche, Carr and McPherson, but RTÉ has hardly ever been able to channel our genius for drama in terms of television.

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As it happened, I thought Love/Hate overrated, its professional competence being mistaken for something more interesting, but it was a masterpiece compared with the first episode of Taken Down (RTÉ1), which comes from the same team of writer Stuart Carolan (with Jo Spain) and director David Caffrey.

The set-up was good, with striking use of the old Pigeon House fort at the South Wall in Dublin as a bleak provision centre for asylum seekers, and with the murder of a young Nigerian woman - found bludgeoned in a nearby bus shelter - kickstarting the plot.

The plight of the refugees, especially that of Nigerian mother Abeni (Aïssa Maïga) and Algerian Samir (Slimane Dazi), was well evoked, but the gardaí investigating the case were given no discernible personalities. There was a casually racist cop, whose poisonous attitude seemed to come from nowhere, while the lead duo of Inspector Jen (Lynn Rafferty) and deputy Niamh (Orla Fitzgerald) just came across as robotic. And matters weren't helped by a pacing that was so sluggish as to be funereal.

Maybe these failings will be redressed as the series proceeds, but the competition in crime dramas is fierce out there, with new series arriving all the time from America, Britain, France, Scandinavia and elsewhere, the best of which are distinguished by engrossing storylines and genuinely intriguing characters.

In the past 11 months alone, I've been riveted by such new dramas as Killing Eve and Mr Mercedes (both on RTÉ), Bodyguard on BBC1 (though it went a bit bonkers towards the end), The Forest (Netflix) and the slow-burning Blood on Virgin One, while new seasons of Spiral (BBC4), Shetland (BBC1) and Better Call Saul (Netflix) have also been unmissable.

Taken Down will need to seriously up its game if it's to compete with any of these.

Or, indeed, with Beck (BBC4), which has returned for a final season. For the past 20 years, Peter Haber has been starring as mild-mannered Swedish detective Martin Beck, and this final series sees him recalled from retirement to help solve a few cases.

A few years back, the series suffered from the departure of Mikael Persbrandt as Beck's unorthodox sidekick Larsson - so charismatic in the role that international fame seemed to beckon in the same way that it did for the Mikkelsen brothers in Denmark.

But we still have the pleasure of watching Haber, the least showy of actors, as he inhabits the part of the dogged policeman trying to make sense of the murder mysteries that confront him. There are only two more outings for Beck on BBC4, so catch them while you can.

In his previous family documentary, We Need to Talk About Dad (RTÉ1), Brendan Courtney outlined the plight of his father, who suffered from vascular disease and who died last year. And this week on the same channel, he gave us We Need to Talk About Mam, which explored possible life choices for his widowed mother, who lived mortgage-free in the Tallaght home where she'd raised her family, but had no private pension or other financial back-up to help her out.

The fashion presenter was engaging as he outlined how 70-something Nuala might spend the rest of her life, though too much time was spent on options she was never likely to entertain: a retirement home in Naas, a villa in Alicante, another retirement facility in Florida.

These last two provided excuses for extended foreign jaunts but proved as pointless as Courtney must have known in advance, and in the end Nuala went for the sensible solution of converting part of her family home into accommodation for herself and renting out the rest, though how the conversion costs were to be met remained unclear.

Along the way, the presenter got angry about an "ageist and unjust world that really doesn't care about older people", and he also lamented the fact that in Dublin "there's nowhere for older people to downsize to and stay in the communities they want to be in".

But as for the notion that his mother might live with him for the rest of her days: "It's not happening. It's not on the cards".

The basic idea behind Tastes Like Home (RTÉ1) is that chef-presenter Catherine Fulvio takes a beloved family dish out to an ex-pat son or daughter and cooks it there, and in this week's opener to the new season she watched as Liz from Cabinteley prepared an Indian fish stew and then she flew out to New Zealand, where she recreated the meal for Liz's son, James.

Two questions occur. Who's paying for all this? And why?

Robin Wright is her commandingly steely self in the new season of House of Cards (Netflix), but where's Kevin Spacey? Oh, yes, I forgot, but, gee, you really do miss him.

And the presidency of Donald Trump makes you feel you're watching a series that's playing out in a parallel universe - one in which the politicians may be villainous but are civil and courteous when they present themselves in public. What a bunch of fakes.

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