Saturday 19 October 2019

Television: No joy in Amy's sitcom but Sharon's new comedy is smart and witty

Shaggy-dog tale: Huberman with her furry co-star in Finding Joy
Shaggy-dog tale: Huberman with her furry co-star in Finding Joy

John Boland

What led our national broadcaster to screen its two new sitcoms, Finding Joy (RTÉ1) and Women on the Verge (RTÉ2), within a night of each other?

Comparisons may indeed be odious, but the first episode of Women on the Verge, created and written by Sharon Horgan and Lorna Martin, was at least smart and witty, whereas words almost fail me about Finding Joy, which was written by Amy Huberman, who was also the central character.

When given the right material, she can be a dab hand at comedy - but there was nothing right about the two seasons of Striking Out, that nonsensical legal drama in which she was required to look either tearful or woebegone, though that might just have been an understandable reaction to a dreadful script.

But I'm afraid that Finding Joy is all of her own making and if we're to judge from this week's opening instalment, it's pretty dreadful, too, with a dismaying reliance on scatological gags.

It began with a voiceover from her dog Aidan, who'd just done a poo on her bed. The guy who'd just dumped her was also called Aidan and when the poo stains on her dressing gown were spotted by the postman, she explained "The human Aidan has never actually taken a shit on me, not in a gross way or, like, in a sexy way. Can it ever be sexy?"

Has any woman anywhere ever talked like this to her postman, or am I just fatally out of touch? If so, maybe someone can explain why she had her character farting on two separate occasions without any comment from her or anyone else and without any comedic payoff. What was that about?

But what was any of it about? It culminated with her television boss requiring her to abseil from the roof of the Aviva Stadium for a feature about people who feel the fear but do it anyway, but this scene was so ham-fisted that it provided no laughs, either. And then it was back to laboured anatomical gags with Aidan (the guy, not the dog) in bed with Joy and coyly asking "Would you allow me to take you up the... up the... up the Eiffel Tower?"

The series, one hopes, can only get better.

By contrast, the discontented thirty-somethings in Women on the Verge hit their stride from the outset, with Laura cautioning pal Alison against getting back with her dreary boyfriend. "You used to encourage him to go climbing on his own without a phone," she reminded her. "And you told him ropes were for wimps."

Working for a Dublin newspaper, Laura was tasked with writing the obituary column. "Dead people can be very interesting," Kate argued to a reluctant Laura. "What about Beyoncé? She'll be dead one day."

These and other tart exchanges clearly came from Sharon Horgan, and if nothing here was as funny as the barbed dialogue she dreamt up for her Channel 4 hit, Catastrophe, it was clever all the same, while the comedic chops of Kerry Condon as scatty Laura and by Eileen Walsh as doleful Alison were a real pleasure. And Horgan herself had a characteristically deft cameo as Laura's psychotherapist.

There was a valedictory feel to Brendan Grace: Funny Man (RTÉ1), even though the comedian is still very much with us, despite the diabetes and stroke that have slowed him down in recent years.

And yes, he really can be a funny man, though the archive clips were poorly chosen, so that anyone who'd never seen him down through the years might have wondered why he always had such a huge following.

But the great and good were here to reassure sceptics. "One of those guys I could listen to forever," declared Michael Flatley. "A lovely, lovely, gorgeous human being," said David Soul. "I have never seen him do a bad show," raved Brendan O'Carroll.

His wife and children were also on hand to lend domestic insights. And the man himself seemed in good, if somewhat subdued, form.

Eamonn McCann: A Long March (BBC1) accompanied the veteran socialist agitator on his brief stint as Northern Ireland Assembly member, while also harking back to his childhood and youth in Derry, of which he spoke with engaging fondness.

The 75-year-old was, as usual, firing on all cylinders and his sheer verve in "preaching the divine gospel of discontent" kept me watching.

Written by Sophie Petzal and directed by Lisa Mulcahy, Blood (Virgin Media One) is a thriller set in rural Ireland, though this week's first episode was somewhat ropey both in its exposition of plot and delineation of character.

Cat (Carolina Main) is the young woman returning home on the sudden death of her mother from a fall. She has issues with her father (Adrian Dunbar), which so far remain unexplained, and with her siblings, too, and she's not convinced that her mother's death was an accident.

There was more in the way of brooding atmosphere than of actual drama in the opening hour, though it might yet deliver the latter.

Meanwhile, the marvellous Better Call Saul (Netflix) ended its fourth season with a chilling starlit execution that irrevocably put Mike beyond the moral pale and with Jimmy showing an aghast Kim his own dark side.

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