Television: Plenty of good drama -- not enough good laughs
Irish TV joined the big boys with 'Love/Hate' this year, but our comic timing remains poor, writes John Boland
Last May's secretly filmed exposé of certain Irish crèches showed that RTÉ hadn't lost its nerve in the wake of the previous year's Father Reynolds debacle, but otherwise the station's current affairs output was less than riveting.
Certainly there were few Prime Time programmes of any consequence, while the much-watched The Frontline was axed, thereby causing the departure of its host Pat Kenny to Newstalk. And the introduction of Claire Byrne and David McCullagh as Prime Time presenters provided scant compensation for the absence of RTÉ's most experienced and authoritative broadcaster.
Elsewhere in RTÉ, 2013 saw a further retrenchment in domestic programming, with few political, social or historical documentaries of any merit being screened and hardly any arts documentaries. Indeed, whatever money was set aside for factual programming was largely spent on dross, notably in the increasingly frivolous Reality Bites series and in seemingly endless lifestyle shows.
Meanwhile, TV3 upped its domestic programming somewhat. It still favoured such lurid crime-scene stuff as 24 Hours to Kill and overearnest and underwhelming probes by investigative reporter Paul Connolly, but late in the year, it came up with Ursula Halligan's very good two-parter, Sinn Fein: Who Are They?
It was also the year in which one of RTÉ's best-loved personalities, racing correspondent Colm Murray, died. He'll be missed for his expertise, his insights and his unassuming good humour, even in the face of personal adversity.
It was an outstanding year for drama. Devotees of Love/Hate (RTÉ One) will instance the fourth season of that series, though others (myself included) thought it remained one-dimensional, not least in its cursory treatment of women characters, who were mainly there to be used and abused.
You couldn't say that about Borgen (BBC4), the excellent Danish political drama which brightened last January with its second season and was similarly absorbing in the season that's just ended. Here was a series that foregrounded women without making any deal about their gender -- a properly grown-up drama, in other words, and cherished as such by its many admirers.
Women were also at the heart of House of Cards (Netflix) and Boss (More 4), though malevolent males were their star turns -- Kevin Spacey as the murderous political fixer of the former and Kelsey Grammer as the monstrous mayor of the latter.
Top of the Lake (BBC Two) was an intriguing oddity, director Jane Campion being as much interested in her oddball characters (including some loopy feminists) as in her mystery story, which was somewhat lacking in thrills, but the series had a tone all of its own and striking use was made of the rural New Zealand setting.
Set in Belfast, The Fall (RTÉ One/ BBC One) spent as much time with its creepy serial killer as with the policewoman intent on catching him, but what began unnervingly ended nowhere -- or at least nowhere persuasive. The same could be said of French drama The Returned (Channel 4), its eerie and unsettling story about people coming back from the dead remaining unresolved by the end of the last episode. Maybe the second series will offer some enlightenment but by then will anyone care?
By contrast, the final episode of Breaking Bad was deeply satisfying, though as it remains unseen on any TV channel, I won't divulge the outcome to those who haven't yet subscribed to Netflix or bought the box set of the fifth season. Do watch it, though, by whatever means of transmission.
Jason Byrne can be a very funny man but his first sitcom, Father Figure (RTÉ Two), was excruciatingly unfunny, not helped by the fact that the characters made no human sense and that the gags, both verbal and visual, were woeful. On the same channel, Damo and Ivor was similarly laugh-free, while Jennifer Maguire's The Fear just made me afraid to happen upon it by mistake. What gives with RTÉ Two and its doomed attempts at comedy?
Gentle laughs, though, were to be had from Moone Boy (Sky One), pictured left, Chris O'Dowd's fond return to the Boyle of his childhood and with a winningly droll performance by David Rawle as the young hero bemused by the idiocies of family life and his own looming adolescence.
Of American imports, Louie (Fox) was the most striking, its bearded and balding middle-aged performer alternating stand-up observations with scripted sketches and managing to negotiate potentially offensive set-ups with such skill that you ended up laughing rather than recoiling.
Oh, and I still found myself chuckling at The Big Bang Theory (RTÉ Two/E4). Well, we all have our weaknesses.