Sunday 18 March 2018

Television: Spin-off reigned supreme in the year's best dramas

Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall.
Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall.
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe.
Aidan Gillen in Charlie.
Aidan Turner in Poldark.
Bizarre: Daniel and Majella's B&B Roadtrip.
Sinatra: All or Nothing at All was absorbing.

John Boland

In a very good year for television drama (though not from RTÉ), Channel 4's two seasons of Fargo stood out.

The 1993 movie remains perhaps the Coen brother's finest achievement, though Noah Hawley's spin-offs have been even better, retaining both the bleak Minnesota locale and basic character types of the original but doing something quite different in their mood and narrative and making thrilling use of the possibilities that eight-hour serial dramas can provide.

The first season, which aired last January, was terrific, with a mischievously malevolent turn from Billy Bob Thornton as a rogue hitman and Martin Freeman creepily good as an ineffectual worm who violently turned, but it had brilliant setpieces rather than a properly coherent storyline.

The coherence came in the just-ended second season, which kept rigidly to its basic tale of a battle for territory between the local Gerhardt criminal clan and the invading Kansas mafia and of the police and the innocents who got caught up in the crossfire.

Here there were pschopathic characters you truly feared and ordinary folk for whom you feared - and with good reason, too, as sudden eruptions of violence put paid on a weekly basis to character after character. And all of this with splendid playing from Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jean Smart and with homespun banter that had you chuckling during those interludes when you weren't gnawing your nails in apprehension of what might happen at any second.

Screened within the same 12 months, both seasons of Fargo were so good that they rather eclipsed Better Call Saul (Netflix), which would have been the outstanding drama series of any other year. Here Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had the somewhat dodgy idea of taking a minor character from that show and building a whole series around him but, being Vince Gilligan, he made it work triumphantly.

Set six years before the timeframe of Breaking Bad, shyster lawyer Jimmy McGill hadn't yet become Walter White's adviser Saul Goodman; indeed, when we first encountered him, he was a nobody, though prone to getting himself into serious trouble. But gradually we saw his quick-thinking wiles developing as he took on seemingly hopeless cases and faced down people who were intent on killing him.

Bob Odenkirk was a commandingly ferret-like presence throughout and the minor players were given roles of real quirky substance. Like Fargo, this was a strikingly inventive series and I look forward to its sequel.

I hadn't looked forward to Wolf Hall (BBC2), partly because I couldn't get through Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning novel and partly because I couldn't see how you could really make a drama about someone who spent most of his time watching rather than saying or doing.

But I hadn't reckoned with Mark Rylance, who proved himself to be the world's best watcher - indeed, I couldn't take my eyes off him even when - especially when - he was at the corner of the frame just looking at other people. His Thomas Cromwell was the year's best performance.

And there were other fine drama series, not least the unashamedly populist Poldark (BBC1) in which Dublin actor Aidan Turner brought such good looks and smouldering flair to the main role that he had women everywhere swooning, and probably quite a few men, too. And Eleanor Parkinson was a feistily charming Demelza.

The French crime series, Spiral, returned for a fifth series on BBC4 and was even better (that is, tougher) than its predecessors, while the second season of the Danish drama, The Legacy (Sky Arts), was so attentive to the foibles of its main characters that a third season doesn't seem excessive.

Humans (Channel 4), which was adapted from a Scandinavian series, was actually about robots and held my attention until it seemed to lose coherence and urgency towards the end.

And the one-off drama I liked best was The C-Word (BBC1), in which Sheridan Smith was wonderful (yet again) as a woman refusing to kowtow to the cancer that will eventually killer her.

RTÉ1 gave us Charlie, in which Aidan Gillen gamely, if not always successfully, impersonated the former Taoiseach. The series itself couldn't quite make up its mind whether to stick to the known political facts or opt for rip-roaring personal drama, and so it never really managed to succeed in either of these aims.

And the less said about crime drama Clean Break (RTÉ1) the better. So I'll say nothing.

It wasn't a vintage year for comedy, but the second season of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's Catastrophe (Channel 4) held its nerve and was even sourer about relationships and marriage than in its first season, though it didn't neglect to provide some genuine belly laughs..

The same channel's Toast of London also had its inspired moments, most of them courtesy of larger-than-life star Matt Berry, who also co-wrote the daft script with Aidan Mathews.

Meanwhile, RTÉ2 offered quite a lot of what was clearly meant to be comedy but didn't turn out as such.

So what's new?

BBC4 still the home for great docs

On the factual front, the year had some outstanding programmes, though not many of them home-produced - unless you were enamoured of Daniel and Majella's B&B Road Trip (UTV Ireland), which redefined the word "bizarre".

Nor could the same channel's Pat Kenny in the Round be counted a success. Indeed, its format left the country's finest broadcaster looking ill-at-ease and sounding stilted as he presented the life stories of various celebrity interviewees.

But RTÉ1's Pope Francis: The Sinner, presented by Mick Peelo, was a rounded portrait of a complex man which didn't shirk from addressing troublesome aspects of his clerical past.

But the outstanding documentaries came from overeseas, many of them courtesy of the superb 'Storyville' strand that BBC4 screens on a regular basis. Perhaps the most notable of these was Last Days in Vietnam, an enthalling account of the US's ignominious flight from the country in which it had gone to war.

On the same channel, India's Daughter concerned the rape and murder of a young medical student on a Delhi bus three years ago this month. It was properly horrifying.

Also on BBC4, My Mother the Secret Baby was a film by Daisy Asquith about how her mother Pat was conceived out of wedlock after a dance in Co Clare in the 1940s. Her pregnant mother had fled to England and Pat was adopted by an English couple.

Her quest to find the identity of her real father back in Co Clare made for a quirkily fascinating film that was full of charming oddities.

The BBC1 Imagine profile of maverick architect Frank Gehry was absorbing, while the four-part Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (BBC4) was unmissable in its scope and depth, revealing both the singer in all his artistry and the man in all his dubious behaviour.

Most endearing series, though, was Joanna Lumley's ­Trans-Siberian Adventure (UTV Ireland), which was full of arresting sights and encounters and was graced by its presenter's intelligence and charm.

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