Thursday 22 August 2019

Television review: Desperate mothers win out over houses that need some tidying

Feel-good factor: Joan and Pierce Butler in Golden: Our 50 Years of Marriage
Feel-good factor: Joan and Pierce Butler in Golden: Our 50 Years of Marriage

John Boland

When the pilot of Motherland (BBC2) aired just over a year ago, I thought its beady-eyed take on metropolitan mums very funny and I looked forward to the promised follow-up series.

Created and written by Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh and Graham and Helen Linehan, the credentials were certainly there to make it a winner, and there were many laugh-out-loud moments in the pilot as frazzled working mother Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) tried catastrophically to juggle career and childcare.

In the current spin-off series, she's still the hapless heroine, this week throwing a birthday party for her daughter in the hope that all the other mothers would return the favour and provide her with some breathing space for her career. Needless to say, that didn't quite work out for her.

Yet though the writing in this season-opener was as sharp as ever, most of the set-ups and gags were squirm-inducing rather than truly amusing, while the troupe of supercilious alpha-mums were almost cartoonish in their social shallowness. But there are five more episodes to come and one can reasonably expect that Horgan, Linehan and Co will hit their proven comic stride in some of them.

And at least I knew what Motherland was aiming to achieve, whereas with Desperate Houses (RTÉ1) I didn't know what I was watching, or why. This new series is one of those reality shows where a supposed expert cleans up people's lives for them, and in Tuesday night's opener we were asked to watch as 60-year-old Annette from Tallaght had two bedrooms emptied of their clutter and revamped for her.

Widowed for the past 30 years and also mourning a son (whose death went unexplained), Annette seemed a nice woman, but the revamping exercise undertaken by architect and designer Róisín Murphy was much ado about very little, at least as far as the viewer was concerned. I certainly failed to see the point of it all - beyond providing some feel-good therapy for Annette.

Golden: Our 50 Years of Marriage (RTÉ1) was also determinedly feel-good, though its stories of couples who've been together for a half-century had some winning disclosures, even if the tone was overly treacly at times.

There were no unsuccessful relationships here, even if English-born Lucy had considered leaving Johnny, owner of a posh country pile in Clones, early in their marriage. However, her mother had counselled that "if you go, you take yourself with you", which both Lucy and Johnny had thought excellent advice. So they stayed put and seem happy to have done so, even if, as Lucy observed, "we have our moments".

Elsewhere, the week was dominated by drama, Unspeakable (Channel 4) offering that old-fashioned thing: a one-off story whose mystery was resolved by the end of 60 minutes.

Indira Varma played Jo, divorced mother of 11-year-old daughter Katie and recipient at the outset of an anonymous text message stating "Your boyfriend and Katie - something's going on. It's not right". What to do? Confront the boyfriend? Go to the police? Jo finally opted for the former, only to discover that a jealous ex-husband was the text's perpetrator.

It made for an absorbing hour, though part of my interest was in watching Harry Treadaway's turn as the boyfriend - almost unrecognisable from the deeply unsettling psychopath he plays in Mr Mercedes.

This has been one of RTÉ1's best drama acquisitions in years and I'm mystified why it hasn't been a critical and popular success in its native America - indeed, a Google search reveals little about it, and clearly it hasn't been taken up by any major US network.

In fact, it's ferociously good and getting more ferocious as each week passes, and with the viewer forced into as much complicity with the villain as with Brendan Gleeson's tormented ex-cop. There are five more episodes to go and unless they tail off badly, this will have been the year's outstanding thriller - better even than the recent seasons of Better Call Saul and Fargo.

Babylon Berlin (Sky Atlantic) is more ambitious in scope, though it remains to be seen whether this 16-part German drama justifies all the accolades it's been receiving in its native country.

It began arrestingly, with extraordinary visual evocations of the German city in 1929 as a police vice squad confronts the hedonistic and criminal excesses of the Weimar republic before Hitler and his henchmen put paid to all that jazz.

Volker Bruch is the haunted young cop, Peter Kurth is his affably brutal colleague, while Liv Lisa Fries is the tenement-living young woman who catalogues crimes by day and cavorts like Sally Bowles by night. There are dangerous Mafia figures, too, not to mention seditious Trotskyites, and how it will all work out is anybody's guess, but this week's pilot episode was assembled with promising assurance.

Alias Grace (Netflix) is assured, too, and you can binge-watch all six episodes if you so desire. I just looked at the first hour and was immediately struck by Sarah Gadon's playing of the servant girl jailed for the murder of her employer in 19th-century Canada.

The 1996 source novel is by Margaret Atwood and you'll find echoes of The Handmaid's Tale here, not least in its depiction of women's subjugation in a patriarchal society, though the tone is somewhat less frightening.

In Scannal (RTÉ1), which recalled how the Boomtown Rats were refused a licence to play in Leopardstown in 1980, Bob Geldof railed against the puritanical Ireland of old, though I was more taken with the question posed by the voiceover-narrator: "What legacy did this storm in a teacup leave?"

None as far as I could see.

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