THE expectations heaped upon the third series of Love/Hate were extreme. Extreme -- and then some -- was what this opening episode delivered.
In the space of a frantic, gripping hour, we were treated to a kneecapping, a pipe bomb attack, a couple of punch-ups, a rape, and someone being kicked nearly to death before being finished off by having his head pulped with a beer keg.
It was often gruesome, stomach-churning stuff, but it was presented with the kind of lip-smacking, blackly comic relish you don't find in mainstream dramas, let alone one made for the Sunday night RTE1 audience.
I've written before that the leap in quality between the first and second series of Stuart Carolan's zippy, gritty, Dublin gangland drama was astonishing.
Well, Carolan and director David Caffrey have upped their game and reshuffled the cards again this series, although in a way that some viewers, perhaps, would never have seen coming. I know I didn't, which just makes it all the more gratifying.
Last year's series, with its themes of betrayal and violent ambition, channelled classic gangster sagas Like The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas and The Departed. The Scorsese influence is still there (there was a tense encounter in a coffee shop -- a conscious nod to GoodFellas if ever I saw one), but this time out Carolan and Caffrey seem to have got in touch with their inner Tarantino as well.
Love/Hate 3 kicked off in storming fashion with one of Nidge's crew, Ado, being dragged into the stairwell of a flats complex and having his knee blown off. The man who pulls the trigger is a hothead called Dano (Jason Barry), the son of the local RA boss, to whom Ado owes money.
Dano's dad Git (a gnarled and convincingly nasty Jimmy Smallhorne) is none too pleased. He wants to keep the peace with Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), at least for now, because he plans to use his drug-funnelling channels to import arms and explosives.
Nidge is none too pleased, either, when Darren (Robert Sheehan) advocates hitting back. Nidge might be ruthless and amoral, but he's not thick. Darren goes ahead anyway, lobbing a pipe bomb at Dano outside Git's pub, but succeeding only in blowing up a car.
The scene seemed set, then, for an increasingly violent, tit-for-tat war.
What we got instead was something bordering on brutal black farce.
A boozy, drug-fuelled night on the tiles, during which Git thinks he's playing Nidge ("He's like a little Jack Russell, all he wants you to do is pat him on the head," he sneers to Dano) and it appears that Nidge might be playing Git, comes to an abrupt end back at Nidge's club when Tommy (Killian Scott) catches Git raping a drunken Siobhan in the backyard and kicks seven shades of green out of him.
"He's looking a bit green around the gills," deadpans Darren, calmly surveying Git writhing on the ground, gurgling on his own blood. And then, out of the blue, in a twist that was as shockingly funny as it was unexpected, WHUMP! -- Darren crowns him with that beer keg.
"What did you do that for?" wails an appalled Nidge.
"He wasn't walking out of here, was he?" says Darren. "I was just putting him out of his misery, that's all."
In a closing segment that wouldn't have looked out of place in Pulp Fiction, Nidge, Darren and Fran (the excellent Peter Cooney) dump Git's body in a hole in a building site, then shovel earth into it with a JCB.
The episode ends with the three of them surveying the breakfast menu at a fast-food joint while Gene Pitney's 24 Hours from Tulsa plays on the soundtrack.
I'm guessing that more than a few viewers might have been left as gobsmacked by the tone of Love/Hate as Git was by that beer keg, but it was a brilliantly audacious and risky way to open the new series, which suggests Carolan and Caffrey are brimming with confidence.