Saturday 24 August 2019

Television: There was a lot more to the year than 1916

Canon Law: Jude Law excelled in The Young Pope
Canon Law: Jude Law excelled in The Young Pope
Can't Cope Won't Cope got better as it went on

John Boland

It was the year in which RTÉ pulled out all the stops to honour the men, women and children of 1916, and for a long number of weeks last spring it seemed as if there was nothing else on the box.

Not all of the commemorative programmes did justice to the occasion ­- the lavish RTÉ1 drama series Rebellion began arrestingly but then degenerated into a soapy melodrama about the personal plights of a few women.

But some of the documentaries were absorbing, especially Ruan Magan's three-parter, simply titled 1916 (RTÉ1), which put the Easter Rising into social, political and historical context and told its often complex story with commendable clarity.

And RTÉ's year came to a close with another outstanding documentary, this time concerning the Mediterranean rescue by Irish naval vessel LE Samuel Beckett of desperate people fleeing Libya. It wasn't always easy to watch, but the dedication, humanity and sheer courage of the rescuers made for very moving television.

Can't Cope Won't Cope got better as it went on
Can't Cope Won't Cope got better as it went on

The same was true of Exodus: Our Journey To Europe (BBC2), screened over three successive nights in July and mainly using the cell phones of refugees to tell its desolating story of displacement and constant danger.

Meanwhile, Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge (RTÉ1) showed that there was more to this presenter than Saturday-night natter with C-list celebs and that, given an alert host and the right guests, there's still a place in the schedules for intelligent conversation on the week's events.

As in other years, RTÉ2's attempts at comedy proved to be mostly dire, though Can't Cope Won't Cope, created and scripted by Stefanie Preissner, got steadily better as it progressed. This was largely because it stopped trying to be funny and became instead a poignant depiction of a young woman unravelling, with Seana Kerslake very affecting as the lost soul in question.

Another lost soul was created, written and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag (BBC2). This was the year's best comedy, scabrously funny though with an underlying dark tone that was all its own and terrific supporting turns from Bill Paterson and Olivia Colman. But the show's overall achievement belonged entirely to Waller-Bridge.

Drama dominated the year, though some of it flattered to deceive, as in the BBC1 adaptation of John Le Carré's The Night Manager, which looked terrific (all those eye-catching locations) but got steadily more far-fetched and James Bondish as it proceeded.

And the ending of The Fall (RTÉ1/BBC1) was just too silly for words as the serial killer was allowed to rampage murderously through a psychiatric hospital before asphyxiating himself with a plastic bag ­- and this after five episodes in which nothing at all had happened. Honestly!

But the outstanding dramas far outnumbered the duds, beginning last February with the second season of Happy Valley (BBC1), which was even better than the much acclaimed first season. Creator Sally Wainwright found even more depth in her principal characters, while the plotting was more assured than first time around and the resolution more satisfying. Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran were wonderfully good as the central sisters.

I liked, too, The Durrells (UTV Ireland), with Keeley Hawes very winning as the English mum who emigrated with her fractious brood to a Greek island. Scenically gorgeous, this was comfort television and none the worse for that.

However, the new season of Poldark (BBC1) showed signs that it might be outstaying its welcome. How much more glowering can we take from Aidan Turner's brooding hero? Devotees, though, will be thrilled to know that there are at least two more seasons in the works. And I wouldn't be surprised if My Mother and Other Strangers (RTÉ1/BBC1) gets a further series. Again, this was comfort television, somewhat in the manner of Heartbeat, but screenwriter Barry Devlin came up with lively characters in this tale of an American air force base in the Northern Ireland of 1943.

Beck, though, came to an end on BBC4, its eponymous detective opting for retirement. I'll miss it, just as I miss the excellent Swedish TV version of Wallander - both notable for their quirky main characters and their engrossing storylines.

On Netflix, Stranger Things came out of nowhere to achieve binge-watching status. Spooky without being gory, this 1980s-set small-town chiller was crammed with allusions to everything from Stand By Me to Stephen King, but had a tone and style all its own. A second season is in the works and it's easy to see why.

Netflix also came up with Jessica Jones, an intriguing superhero series, with Krysten Ritter very persuasive as the grungy young woman traumatised by her past, and by her nemesis David Tennant, but still capable of kicking ass. It created a distinct mood, though couldn't avoid becoming far-fetched in its later episodes.

But the second season of Better Call Saul (Netflix) held its nerve. This spin-off prequel to Breaking Bad had a personality all its own, more playful and a good deal less violent than Breaking Bad, with Bob Odenkirk making the early Saul Goodman a truly engaging figure.

Jude Law gave the year's star turn in The Young Pope (Sky Atlantic). Generally miscast in movies, he clearly revelled in the chance to show his chops as the witheringly disdainful pontiff facing down his Vatican enemies. And as directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth), the series looked ravishing, too.

As did The Crown (Netflix), which was the year's finest drama, confounding the expectations of viewers who feared a dutiful account of Elizabeth's rise to the throne. In fact, this was enthralling social history, brilliantly scripted by Peter Morgan and with terrific playing from Jared Harris, Claire Foy, Matt Smith, John Lithgow and a host of other actors.

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