A Golden age of Irish television
Younger generations laugh when we oldies tell of a time when there were only two channels on television. In fact, there were hardly more than two decent Irish programmes, for decades.
Now, all is changed. People may pooh-pooh Irish shows in comparison to the Scandinavian, British and especially American giants making this a golden age for television. But it's an indigenous golden age, too.
We've never had it so good in home-produced TV. There's more of it, and it's better than ever. And here's why:
Adaptation of the 'showrunner' model
David Chase/The Sopranos, David Simon/The Wire, Shonda Rhimes/Grey's Anatomy…countless successful programmes have become synonymous with their showrunners. Many would never have happened without them. The showrunner is essentially an all-in-one executive producer and creative visionary. They frequently write and direct, too. This all leads to clever, complex, often ground-breaking TV. Here, the iconic Love/Hate would never have happened without showrunner Stuart Carolan, while Peter McKenna is doing similar with TV3's fine Red Rock.
Wealth of local talent
This is on both sides of the camera. Lenny Abrahamson - one of the finest young directors in cinema - made the series Prosperity for RTE, from a script by award-winning playwright Mark O'Halloran. Onscreen, meanwhile, Aiden Gillen is one of the biggest TV names in the world, and his presence in Season 2 helped establish Love/Hate with the public. Other top-drawer talents like Tom Vaughn-Lawlor and Robert Sheehan (Love/Hate), Cathy Belton (Red Rock), Aisling O'Sullivan (The Clinic) and Gillian Anderson (The Fall) have given Irish shows a sheen of quality and a little glamour.
There's an old truism that Hollywood isn't to blame for what it throws out - we are. Producers, after all, give the public what they want. And domestic shows are like catnip to Irish audiences right now. All of the above did well, or better than well; Love/Hate became a bona fide phenomenon. At the moment, reality programmes such as Operation Transformation and Room to Improve are storming the ratings. Even the fact that The Guarantee - a film about the banking crisis, based on Irish Independent theatre critic Colin Murphy's play - can be produced and aired by TV3, speaks volumes.
While titchy by US standards, Irish dramas have still seen funding shoot to previously uncharted levels. Love/Hate, for example, cost about €600,000 per episode. TV3 committed €7m over two years to Red Rock. More money means higher production values, more star-wattage in the cast, and time and space to properly develop a programme, scene by scene. And on the flipside…
This may seem counter-intuitive, but TG4 has long made a virtue out of financial restrictions. Because they have to work fast and be clever, they take chances on unusual stories, themes and genres: Na Cloigne was a dark horror, Corp agus Anam a gritty thriller, Rasai na Gaillimhe a delirious satire, An Bronntanas like the Coen Brothers meets the Gaeltacht. Speaking of which…
While some shows play it safe - which isn't necessarily bad - others stretch the boundaries. Amber, for instance, admirably refused to tie up the mystery, ending on an oblique, dreamy note. Red Rock eschews the usual kitchen-sink touchstones for a mood of mystery. Single Handed never offered easy solutions.