Tuesday 26 March 2019

TV review: Some may have lost the plot but it has been a brilliant year of drama - outside of Ireland

Amy Huberman as Tara in Striking Out
Amy Huberman as Tara in Striking Out
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown
Amy Huberman films scenes for the second season of RTE drama Striking Out at City Hall, Dublin
Brendan Gleeson steps into the shoes of retired Detective Hodges in Mr Mercedes
Amy Huberman plays Tara in Striking Out
Elisabeth Moss is Offred in The Handmaid's Tale

John Boland

There were brilliant dramas to be watched in 2017, though not from RTÉ, which gave us three crocks, the best of which was Striking Out.

This allowed Amy Huberman to shine as independent young lawyer Tara, but it also allowed so many plot implausibilities that you couldn't really take it seriously. Maybe the writers will have redressed this failing in the second season, which starts in January.

But there was no way of redressing the failings in Acceptable Risk, its global plotline didn't convince for one second and actors were left hopelessly adrift in ill-written scenarios. And what were RTÉ and the BBC thinking with their EastEnders spin-off collaboration, Redwater, which was just too daft for words?

But RTÉ redeemed itself by acquiring the 10-episode American thriller Mr Mercedes long before any network showing of it in the US. Adapted from a Stephen King novel, this had a tone all its own and had marvellous performances from Brendan Gleeson as the retired cop, from Harry Treadaway as the disturbed young psychopath taunting him, and from Mary-Louise Parker, Holland Taylor and a supporting cast of unfamiliar players.

Brendan Gleeson steps into the shoes of retired Detective Hodges in Mr Mercedes
Brendan Gleeson steps into the shoes of retired Detective Hodges in Mr Mercedes

It was easily the year's best drama, though there was strong competition from the third season of Fargo (Channel 4), in which creator Noah Hawley spun quirky new variations on the Coen Brothers' original 1990s movie. This time around Ewan McGregor was at the centre of the action, both as a hapless Minnesota tycoon and as his even more hapless brother. David Thewlis was the grinning villain and he was truly unsettling.

Better Call Saul (Netflix) also continued to delight, with Bob Odenkirk's genially shifty Jimmy McGill moving inexorably towards the dark side that we would come to inhabit as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. And Rhea Seehorn was a glowing presence as his loving but increasingly sceptical sidekick. Another season is on the way, and it's to be welcomed, but if creator Vince Gilligan has sense it will be the last.

In the year of Trump and his sinister patriarchal cronies, The Handmaid's Tale (Channel 4) had a particular resonance and there was no doubting the brilliance of this Margaret Atwood adaptation about the subjugation of women or, indeed, of Elisabeth Moss's central performance.

But I thought it went on too long for its own good and I'm wondering about the wisdom of the sequel that's apparently in the works.

Big Little Lies (Sky Atlantic) had juicy roles for Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley as suburban moms whose lives were far less happy than they chose to present to the world outside. This was framed as a whodunnit, but it was the women themselves who enthralled, Kidman outstanding as an abused wife.

Much less enthralling was Sky Atlantic's Riviera. Indeed, co-writer and director Neil Jordan was so displeased with the way it was turning out that he disowned it.

Amy Huberman plays Tara in Striking Out
Amy Huberman plays Tara in Striking Out

Certainly it was a mess and overly infatuated with the tawdry bling that it was supposedly exposing. Julia Stiles, who hasn't had a good role in years, looked strained and stranded as the wife probing her husband's apparent death.

But David Simon's The Deuce (also Sky Atlantic) was the real deal and featured terrific playing from Maggie Gyllenhaal as a prostitute trying to negotiate her way through the New York sex industry in the 1970s.

The BBC's low point came in the form of Conor McPherson's first television drama, Paula, which over three episodes became as unhinged as its main villain, but otherwise it had a good year, not least with a tense season of Line of Duty, Thandie Newton impressing as a deviously corrupt and murderous cop.

I also liked Mike Bartlett's blank verse drama, King Charles III, which imagined the queen's rancorous and resentful eldest son finally getting to ascend the throne but with William and Kate out to scupper his moment of glory. Tim Pigott-Smith, who unexpectedly died soon after the film was screened, was marvellous in the lead role.

But the BBC's most winning dramas were adaptations of two JK Rowling mysteries that she wrote under the name Robert Galbraith. These featured one-legged, dishevelled private eye Cormoran Strike and his temp secretary-sidekick Robin, and they proved that casting can be everything - there was a terrific rapport between Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger in the lead roles. Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling was perhaps the better of these two-part stories, but both were a delight.

And The Crown (Netflix), after an outstanding first season, got even better, with creator-writer Peter Morgan daring to speculate about the private lives of his protagonists.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith have been so persuasive as the royal couple that it's impossible to imagine how they can be replaced by Olivia Colman and whoever for the third season.

The year also featured some notable documentaries, not least The Vietnam War (BBC4/RTÉ1), in which over 10 episodes, former combatants and observers from all sides recalled what they'd endured or seen.

That there were no winners in this calamitous folly was the main message of Ken Burns's extraordinary series, which also made brilliant use of archive battle footage.

OJ: Made in America (BBC4) was also very impressive in its use of the Simpson case to tell a much wider story about racial and social faultlines in the United States.

RTÉ paid fine tribute to two sporting legends. Giles revealed that there was more to John Giles than we'd guessed from decades of watching him both on the pitch and as a soccer pundit.

And Anthony Foley: Munsterman was a moving profile of a man driven by his devotion to rugby, with eloquent testimony from family, friends and fellow players.

The year wasn't notable for comedy, with Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan's Motherland (BBC2) not as funny as I'd expected from its pilot, and with RTÉ as deficient as ever.

But I loved The Trip to Spain (Sky Atlantic), in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon brought a strain of middle-aged melancholy to their culinary banter.

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