Smother, RTÉ One **
Anton Chekhov’s famous advice to young playwrights – dubbed “Chekhov’s gun” – was that if you’re going to show a gun on stage in act one, you’d better make damn sure the thing gets fired in act two or three.
Do anything else and you’re cheating the audience by making promises you have no intention of keeping.
It was Chekhov’s concise way of saying that every element of a story should be necessary to the whole. Anything irrelevant should be got rid of.
Of course, Chekhov never wrote for television. If TV writers trimmed all the excess fat from their scripts, there’d be an abundance of two-part psychological thrillers but not many six-part ones.
Season two of Smother (RTÉ1, Sunday) looks like it’s going to abide by the most basic principle of Chekhov’s gun, if not much else.
We saw a gun in the frenzied flashforward that preceded the credits, as well as in the credits themselves. A couple of guns were glimpsed in a scene midway through the episode.
There’s no doubt one of them will be fired at some point, because the flashforward also showed us a bloodstained carpet being furiously scrubbed. Foreshadowing has never been delivered with such a sledgehammer lack of subtlety.
Whether you’ll feel compelled to stick around for five more Sundays to find out who does the shooting and who gets shot is debatable.
Last year’s Smother kicked off with a reasonably promising, if sometimes confusing, opening episode. Writer Kate O’Riordan seemed to be aiming for a cross between an Agatha Christie whodunit and Broadchurch.
But it quickly deteriorated into a jumbled mess. The number of tangential characters – none of them remotely sympathetic or interesting– ballooned by the week, to the point where you almost needed a spreadsheet to keep track of them.
It was overstuffed with backstories, flashbacks and subplots (mental illness, infidelity, blackmail, domestic abuse, dodgy business dealings), none of which led anywhere.
Still, at least the central mystery of who pushed Val Ahern’s (Dervla Kirwan) horrible husband Denis (Stuart Graham) off the cliff kept you just about engaged enough to hang around for the damp-squib finale.
Season two, on the other hand, goes straight to the mess stage. It’s pure soap opera from the outset.
O’Riordan goes the full Palmolive by springing Denis’s secret son Finn (onetime Coronation Street regular Dean Fagan) on the Ahern clan just as they’re scattering Rory’s ashes on the beach.
In case you’ve forgotten, Rory was the brain tumour-afflicted husband of Val’s daughter Anne (Gemma-Leah Devereux) and took the rap for killing Denis to save the real culprit, his recovering alcoholic ex Elaine (Justine Mitchell), the most miserable woman alive.
“Denis is dead, why are you here now?” Val asks Finn, who her daughters make feel about as welcome in the family as a vegan in a butcher shop.
“Dunno. Maybe the writer needed another hackneyed twist to justify a second season,” he says.
Nah, he doesn’t really say that. He might as well, though, given the plot mechanics are so clunky.
Turns out Finn, who seems to know an awful lot he shouldn’t about the Aherns, is not so secret after all. Denis’s brother Frank (Conor Mullen) knew about him. So did Val. So did her best friend Mairéad (Carrie Crowley).
So much for Val telling her daughters: “We have to promise from now on we’ll only tell one another the truth.”
She’s going to come to regret that one – although perhaps not as much as O’Riordan might come regret giving Kirwan such obviously mockable lines such as: “Frank, would you mind carving the ham?”
Frankly, Kirwan needs nobody’s help with the ham. If her performance in the first season was oddly inert, this one borders on the bizarre.
She wafts around, delivering her lines in an odd, breathy whisper that soon begins to grate on the nerves. When she’s not wafting and whispering, she’s spying on people through windows or peeping around corners.
I will say the Clare scenery is nice to look at. Just not nice enough to compensate for six hours of guff.