TV best and worst of 2008
Small-screen triumphs and turkeys
SIX OF THE BEST
Arts Lives (RTE1)
There were three outstanding profiles in this series. Charles McCarthy's film about John Banville, above, revealed the Wexford-born author in more playful, less hi-falutin', mode than is his customary public image, though his essential seriousness was in evidence, too. Dara McCluskey's visually witty and often moving portrait of Patrick McCabe was greatly enlivened by the presence of the writer's two ebullient and mischievous daughters. And Sean O Mordha's film about Paul Muldoon caught the complex spirit of this most dazzling, mercurial and sometimes mystifying of Irish poets as he talked about his upbringing, career, vocation and political and artistic beliefs.
The Storyville strand of documentary-making is almost invariably a guarantee of real substance and quality and it's a shame that it's largely to be seen only on BBC4. In the past year it's come up with a chilling film about the Jonestown mass murders -- pictured above is cult leader Jim Jones.
There was also an engrossing account of American political fixer and smearer Lee Atwater and a study in depth of the troubled genius that is Roman Polanski.
RTE's overall sports coverage is first-class and the pundits it hires are far superior to those across the water. I'm not just talking of Giles, Dunphy and Co on soccer, but of Hook, Pope and O'Shea on rugby, too, and a myriad of people on hurling and football. And its coverage of the Olympics -- in which boxer Kenny Egan won a silver medal -- was outstanding.
I sat down to scoff at the inordinate amount of time and resources being spent on an event in which there was little Irish participation, but I ended up marvelling at the insights from the commentators and from various experts of whom I'd never heard before. Who would have thought that clay pigeon shooting and underwater basket-weaving could be so fascinating?
The Heart of Thomas Hardy (BBC1)
On the 80th anniversary of the poet and novelist's death, Griff Rhys Jones presented a loving and absorbing profile of him. Documentaries this good send you scurrying back to the author's work. Mind you, a couple of weeks later Rhys Jones fronted a two-part account of rage, in the process facing up to his own lifelong tendency to lose his temper spectacularly. It wasn't a pretty sight and I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to regard Rhys Jones as a cuddly and loveable figure again, but it was courageous of him to tackle the subject and to be confronted with the truth from his family and friends.
Not all competitive reality shows are meretricious, but this was the real thing, primarily because it took the six young contestants and their ambitions seriously. Monica Loughman made for a bracingly no-nonsense teacher and her charges were treated with sympathy and tact by the filmmakers.
Wild China (BBC2)
The year had other good nature series -- Eamon de Buitlear's Ainmhithe na hEireann on TG4 was very winning -- but visually this stood apart, with awesome landscapes and extraordinary creatures. George Lee went to China, too, but found nothing quite so exotic.
SIX OF THE WORST
Failte Towers (RTE1)
All the sins of the reality-show genre were here, with bucketloads of incompetence thrown in for good measure. "How am I going to stick two weeks with these people?" Patricia McKenna moaned at the outset, oblivious of the fact that some of us couldn't stick two minutes with Patricia herself. In fact, the series was so godawful that she was far from being the most unbearable of the contestants. This was car-crash television and it made Celebrity Bainesteoir by contrast seem a good way to while away an evening, which it wasn't.
The Roaring '20s
When this was screened early in the year, I asked: "Has there been a worse sitcom on RTE?" For sheer unfunniness and ineptitude I still can't think of a rival, though Killinaskully is a definite contender, while the smug antics of The Panel deserve a mention (though not a watching). The best moments of Katherine Lynch's two series (mainly the bits involving traveller singer Bernie Walsh) had me chortling, but she seemed incapable of quality control and at her worst she was pretty dire.
Livin' with Lucy
Lucy Kennedy's most striking trait is her self-regard (it's me, me, me all the time) and her most obvious obsession is with bodily functions. Visiting Samantha Mumba and Jade Goody, her talk was all about "poo" and "willies", followed by her trademark cackles. The viewer learned nothing about any of her interviewees and too much about herself. Calum Best said he agreed to take part so that he could "tell the Irish people what's going on -- if they watch this shit show." Give that man a job as a critic.
Sex and Sensibility
Sniggering nonsense about Irish attitudes to sexuality over the past few decades -- reeling in the leers, I called it at the time, with presenter Simon Delaney doing the leering.
Much as I loathe cookery shows (Trish's Paris Kitchen excepted), I loathe even more when they're given the reality-show treatment. RTE1's Heat was a tepid reheating of Gordon Ramsay codology, but Guerrilla Gourmet was even worse, asking chefs to cook dinners in the most stupidly incongruous of circumstances. Dylan McGrath served up a meal in the dark, which is where this series should have stayed.
Once again, it wasn't a good year for RTE drama, though Raw had its lively moments and Eden was given a sheen that almost disguised its essential hollowness. Bittersweet was all about women empowering women and sisters doing it for themselves. Indeed, no cliché was left unturned in a feelgood drama that I described at the time as complete bollocks. Which it was.