Saturday 21 April 2018

Keeping it country with a brand new Tennessee waltz

The new American drama series, Nashville (More 4), bears the same title as Robert Altman's 1975 movie, about which New Yorker critic Pauline Kael confessed "I've never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way" – before going on to declare it "the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen".

Well, when Kael got things wrong she got them spectacularly wrong – Last Tango in Paris's first screening, she argued, was a cultural landmark comparable to the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring – and the plain truth is that Altman's freewheeling style was so meandering and so indulgent of largely inferior actors as to be almost unwatchable today.

The TV series, made by ABC, is no masterpiece and might easily get overlooked, but that's because – from The Sopranos, The West Wing and The Wire to Breaking Bad, Homeland and House of Cards – we're living in a golden age of American television drama and so our standards have become very severe.

However, by normal criteria Nashville transcends its somewhat pulpy set-up – fading country star trying to salvage her career as ambitious young arriviste seeks to seize her crown – with characters who warrant your attention and performances that lend them satisfying depth.

Connie Britton is awfully good as 40-something Rayna, trying to juggle the demands of career and family while also having to cope with her disapproving and politically motivated father, played in scheming Larry Hagman style by Powers Boothe. And Hayden Panettiere brings the right blend of sex and rapaciousness to her role as Rayna's young rival, Juliette.

It's all a bit soapy at heart, but you have the sense of honest emotions being explored, too, and the series might well turn out to be one of the season's popular hits. RTÉ could do worse than buy it.

Also titled after an iconic American city, Vegas (Sky Atlantic) seems set to be even more formulaic than Nashville, though it has its virtues, too, chief among them being Dennis Quaid's star turn as cop-turned-rancher-turned-cop-again Ralph Lamb, who's based on a lawman in the Las Vegas of the early 1960s.

The period is unfussily evoked and Michael Chiklis, that hard man from The Shield, looks likely to be a formidable adversary as newly arrived mobster Vincent, but the opening episode retreated disappointingly to whodunit territory as Ralph sought to discover who had murdered the governor's daughter and dumped her in the desert. Still, it's early days and the series is worth keeping an eye on.

Scannal (RTÉ One) rehashed the sad but all-too-familiar story of Katy French, which was offered by the voiceover-narrator as "a cautionary tale from the final days of the Celtic Tiger".

The half-hour film had nothing new to impart about a young woman whose rise to dubious fame had been so sudden that most people had never heard of her until she died with cocaine in her system – a vox pop filmed at the time and screened at the programme's start elicited such responses as "Haven't a clue", "C-list celeb", "Never heard of her" and "Some kind of model, I suppose".

As the narrator pointed out, she "craved publicity", but the dangers of pursuing that compulsion were well articulated by journalist Paul Drury, who observed of such fame-seekers: "They think they're in control of the media. They're not".

Yet this media invention was so mourned on the front pages of her inventors' publications that the Taoiseach of the time, Bertie Ahern, chose to send his aide-de-camp to her funeral – an honour not accorded to Liam Clancy or other Irish people of genuinely earned fame.

In the first instalment of Radharc na Rúise (TG4), presenter Feargus Denman introduced the viewer to Julia Romashko who, although Russian, became an Irish dancing European champion and now teaches it to children in Moscow. So how did that happen? Well, apparently, after a friend gave her a video of Riverdance she was so smitten that "I couldn't sleep that night and even got a high temperature". Michael Flatley, you're a terror.

Among Julia's pupils were 12-year-old twins Taya and Natalia, whom we'd earlier met with their mother, Katya, when Feargus called to their bleak high-rise apartment, one of thousands on the outskirts of Moscow. It made for a charming few minutes and just as engrossing was his chat about the bad old Soviet days with artist Boris Zhutovsky in his Moscow studio.

Feargus, who had studied in Moscow 10 years ago, was back "to find out if the Russians and the Irish have anything in common" and he was such an engaged listener and unobtrusive presence that I'll certainly keep faith with him for the remainder of this enlightening four-part series.

Never mind Tommy Bowe's Bodycheck (RTÉ One) – after the recent dismal displays against England and Scotland, it's the entire Irish rugby team that needs to get checked out. But back to Tommy who, on the mend from a kidney operation, was getting the once-over from a team of experts who were trying to establish whether sporting prowess was acquired or in the genes.

He seemed like a nice guy, but after about half-an-hour of watching him being subjected to all sorts of scientific experiments I decided I'd rather see him scoring tries for Ireland, which I hope he soon does again. Or somebody anyway.

Irish Independent

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