Thursday 22 February 2018

Country piles, languid toffs and shifty servants . . . again

John Boland

Downton Abbey is back for a fourth season (ITV, TV3) and half the people I know (well, women, anyway) still can't seem to get enough of country piles, languid toffs and scheming servants. Indeed, almost 11 million viewers in Britain and Ireland watched last Sunday night's opener and they're nuts about the series in America, too – though this week's Emmy awards judges plainly weren't among its most ardent admirers, slighting it in favour of the AMC cable series Breaking Bad.

That last is unmissable television, whereas I'd rather stick needles in my eyes than have to suffer through any more of Downton Abbey, which was always tosh but had a certain soap opera appeal on its initial outing, even if you never believed for a second that aristos and their household plebs would interact in such a way.

But as early as the second season, there was the distinct feeling of desperation as creator Julian Fellowes sought to breathe fresh life into his Upstairs Downstairs scenario by bumping off key characters, introducing others out of nowhere and concocting plot lines that became increasingly contrived and tiresome.

Sybil, the only intriguing daughter among Lord Grantham's brood, is long gone, while last season ended with the death of Lady Mary's hubby Matthew – no great loss in my view as he was always a bit of a plank. But that left his mopey widow to dominate the opening episode of the new season – if "dominate" is the word for someone who just sat there looking catatonic. A boot up the backside would have been my remedy, but that should also be applied to the whole shenanigan, which in terms of drama is long past its sell-by date.

As an alternative in the same time slot on the same night, BBC One is hoping that By Any Means will do the trick, though I wouldn't bet on it. Created and written by Tony Jordan, who was also behind the same channel's Hustle, this is a similarly shallow caper, involving a bunch of enforcers who aren't quite cops ("It's a grey area", they kept repeating in the opening episode) but who have vowed to exact justice on criminals that the legal system has failed to convict.

That's the premise of Dexter, too, though By Any Means seems unlikely to venture into the dark psychic areas that are explored by the American series. Instead, this first episode had lots of flippant badinage between the three annoying leads ("Are we allowed to kill people?" "No, it's PC gone mad"), though the stunts they pulled off in seeking to nail murderous businessman Keith Allen were quite diverting in an Ocean's 11 sort of way.

But will I return to it tomorrow night? Probably not.

And will I be revisiting London Irish, a new Channel 4 sitcom about "a bunch of twenty-somethings acting the maggot"? This has already annoyed some Irish expats, who have objected to a promo that promised a comedy about characters "too drunk to know where they're going or remember where they've been".

However, I'd be less concerned with notions of racial stereotyping (Father Ted, after all, is about a bunch of Irish eejits) than with the plain fact that the show's opening episode was entirely witless, with not a laugh to be found in its 25 minutes of effing, blinding, boozing and ridiculously implausible behaviour.

And the show's title is a misnomer, too – it should have been called 'London Northern Irish', as all of its main characters, even those played by Dublin actors, are from north of the border. Creator and scriptwriter Lisa McGee, who created Raw for RTÉ, is a Northerner, too – which, on the evidence of this dire concoction, seems to be no laughing matter.

The Wrong Mans (BBC One) was somewhat better, though I spent most of its first episode wondering why it was being offered as a comedy. Certainly the set-up – a man answering a discarded cellphone discovers that the unknown owner's wife has been kidnapped by violent abductors – could have been the intriguing basis for a thriller, and there was nothing in what followed that really made you want to chuckle.

Matthew Baynton was engaging as the hapless hero, though James Corden (who co-wrote the series with him) overdoes the David Brent shtick as the fantasising office colleague who views the situation as his chance at heroism. Still, it might warrant another look.

That's more than can be said for RTÉ Two's new sitcoms, which I thought dismayingly bad when they premiered last week and which I thought got even worse this week. The characterisations in the Jason Byrne vehicle, Father Figure, continued to make no sense whatsoever, while the second episode of Damo and Ivor was so unfunny that I envied the early departure of Ivor's dad from the proceedings. Rik Mayall, the actor in question, drove off with the look of a man who was wondering why he'd ever driven in.

As for The Mario Rosenstock Show, no amount of frantic in-house puffery on the Late Late Show or on Miriam O'Callaghan's morning radio show will persuade me that mimickry has any point if it's not actually funny.

Irish Independent

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