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How we've come to Love/Hate

I HAD some problems with the first series of Love/Hate. (RTE1, Sunday)

If you want to be corny about it, you could describe it as something of a love-hate relationship.

There was never anything wrong with the production; it was as sharp and polished as anything you're likely to see, and the performances, given the material the actors had to work with, were generally excellent.

The main fault lay in the casting.

Good as Robert Sheehan was in the first two series of Misfits -- which, as it happens, was very good indeed -- he's absolutely no one's idea of what someone involved in the Dublin gangland scene should look like.

With his big, soulful eyes, impeccably mussed-up hair, neat little goatee and permanent expression of pained concern, Sheehan looked completely wrong for the milieu he's supposedly trapped in.

More male model than mobster.

My second gripe was with Stuart Carolan's scripts, which seemed to want, if not to glamorise the criminal lifestyle exactly, then to normalise it.

He seemed to be saying, "Hey, look: these guys might be ruthless, violent bastards who sell drugs for a living and kill one another without a second thought, but they're three-dimensional ruthless, violent bastards. They have wives, girlfriends, kids, friendships and loyalties, just like the rest of us."

The Sheehan problem hasn't gone away. I still think he's still spectacularly miscast as Darren, as is Ruth Negga -- whose appearance here was limited to a few minutes -- as his true love Rosie. She's about as likely to be mixed up with thugs as I am to be called up as a late addition to the Chippendales.

But something has happened to it in the period between the end of the first series and the start of the second.

Maybe Carolan and the production team have been emboldened by the ratings success, or perhaps it's because he's got a tighter handle on his own characters, but Love/Hate appears to have grown a pair and lost its inhibitions.

This opening episode had something previous ones lacked: grit, pace, edge and a gallery of scumbags who, for the most part, looked and acted like scumbags.

There was no attempt to soften or humanise them.

An extended scene in a pub, featuring a birthday party and a stripper, perfectly encapsulated the sleaze and grot of the circles these people move in. You might not like them, yet watching them at "work" and at play has all the fascination of gazing into a snake pit.

Though Darren's reluctant pact with the psychotic godfather John Boy (Aidan Gillen), who's agreed to pay off his debt to loan shark Fran (Peter Coonan) on the condition that he returns to the fold, is the engine that drives the plot, Darren remains the least interesting character, as well as the least fleshed-out.

He was practically an incidental presence last night, with more time being given over to the activities of John Boy's newly minted second-in-command, Nidge, played by Tom Vaughan Lawlor, who's really grown into the character. Affable one minute, brutal the next, he's the most convincing figure in Love/Hate.

Which brings us to Aidan Gillen's John Boy. I've always found Gillen a rather mannered actor, no matter what part he's playing. In last year's Love/Hate, his trick-bag full of tics and twitches threatened to derail whatever credibility the series had.

This time around, though, it works perfectly. With the cops closing in on his empire and threatening to take away his apartment and flash car, John Boy is shoving half of Colombia's cocaine crop up his nose and growing more paranoid and hair-trigger dangerous by the minute. Give him a white suit and a machine gun and he could be a Northside Tony Montana.

Gillen appears to be having a snarling, swivel-eyed ball with the role, going as far over the top as is humanly possible without the aid of a vaulting pole.

For the moment anyway, it's more love than hate on my side.

Love/Hate 3/5