Monday 19 March 2018

Television: It's murder in Monterey for these desperate housewives...

What lies beneath: Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies
What lies beneath: Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies

John Boland

Moonlight and La La Land may have won most of this year's Oscars, but it's the small screen that increasingly attracts some of Hollywood's biggest stars, and so we have Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern in the new Sky Atlantic drama series, Big Little Lies.

Based on an Australian novel by Liane Moriarty and relocated from New South Wales to the Californian seaside community of Monterey, this started off like a cross between The Stepford Wives and Desperate Housewives as we were invited to marvel at the lifestyles of a group of perfect moms: ocean decks to die for, kitchens to kill for and smiles as sunny as the Californian skies.

Chirpiest of all was Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), relentlessly upbeat as she told newcomer Jane (Shailene Woodley), "You're an intrinsically nice person" and introduced her to all and sundry as "my new friend Jane".

But soon it became clear that things were not quite as they seemed. Madeline resented her ex's new young wife, Bonnie, while also feeling adrift as her teenage daughter grew away from her. Nor was Celeste (Nicole Kidman) as serenely happy with hubby Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) as their passionate gropings suggested, while Jane was having flashbacks to a troubled past not yet defined.

Matters came to a head in this first episode with a school-gate accusation that Jane's young son had physically hurt the daughter of wealthy career woman Renata (Laura Dern), but from the outset we'd also witnessed the aftermath of a brutal murder, though of whom and by whom it's not yet clear.

Already, though, the series has me hooked, with an intriguingly enigmatic turn from Kidman as a woman who may be privately enduring her husband's rages, while Witherspoon brought a wrenching poignancy to scenes in which she let her public guard down and revealed her private loneliness.

Meanwhile back in Dublin, a woman was feeling desperate, too. "Holy Jesus!" Celina exclaimed as her dad drove her to the IKEA store for her nuptials. "This can't be happening!" Celina had originally dreamed of getting married in the Unitarian church on St Stephen's Green and having her wedding reception in the Shelbourne hotel, subsequently opting instead for Powerscourt House as her preferred venue. But no, this was Don't Tell the Bride (RTÉ2), so partner Ben got to choose where the c ceremonies took place.

So why IKEA? Don't ask me, but then don't ask me anything about this ludicrously contrived series, in which the groom is tasked with decisions about venues and wedding dresses that would never happen in real life. "This is one bride who knows what she wants," the deeply annoying voiceover intoned as the viewer wondered why she'd been given no say in the matter. But then, of course, there would have been no programme, which would have been fine by me.

Autism and Me (RTÉ1) was an affecting film about young people who suffer from this debilitating condition, and the testimonies of 11-year-old Hughie, 16-year-old Fiacre and 19-year-old Niamh were both distressing and moving. But as usual, RTÉ lessened its impact through overkill, the subject having already been addressed in the previous Friday's Late Late Show and then discussed again in the Claire Byrne Live show that immediately followed the documentary. Just as moving, indeed sometimes unbearably so, was War Child (Channel 4), in which children were filmed as they attempted to flee to Germany from their war-torn countries.

"The Taliban started killing children as they walked to school," said 11-year-old Emran from Afghanistan, "so my father sent me to Europe." En route, he played a "refugee game" with 12-year-old Hussein which involved one of them as a border guard chasing, catching and expelling the other.

Twelve-year-old Rawan from Aleppo was on her way through Greece and Macedonia with her family. "In Syria, I was young," she recalled and you could see in her brave but haunted face that she wasn't young anymore.

From the wrenching to the ridiculous, Geri's 1990s: My Drive to Freedom (BBC2) purported to offer the former Spice Girl's thoughts on the decade that made her famous, but was really all about herself. Yes, she had views on grunge ("too depressing"), on Oasis ("a little bit too aggressive") and on being "one of Thatcher's children", but mostly it was just about her lifelong desire to be "rich and famous".

Her Spanish mother was on hand to recall that her daughter "always liked to show off: look at me, look at me, look at me" and to note her ability to "get on people's nerves". That was possibly meant fondly, but I'm with mum.

Belfast-born Gareth Reid won Portrait Artist of the Year (Sky Arts), which is quite the best of all such painting shows, amiably hosted by Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner and engrossing in its depiction of how portraits get created.

Reid now lives, teaches and paints in Glasgow but his winning £10,000 assignment, commissioned by the National Gallery of Ireland, was to paint Graham Norton. This was filmed in a follow-up show set mainly in Bantry, where both painter and sitter discovered that they were third cousins. "Hilarious," Graham declared, adding that only in Ireland...

Storyville: Murder in Italy (BBC4) concerned the 2010 killing of 13-year-old Yara Gambirasio near her Lombardy village and the way in which DNA evidence led dogged police investigator Letizia Ruggeri to her murderer, who's now serving a life sentence. The story was absorbingly told.

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