TV and Radio
Just be yourself, the romantic hopefuls are told as ‘First Dates Ireland’ returns; good advice for the lacquered legal drama ‘Striking Out’, still wrestling with its identity, while zippy new comedy ‘Derry Girls’ has fewer hang ups
Screen and sound reviews
Lisa McGee’s zippy new comedy series featured a terrorist act in its opening moments. Set in mid-1990s Northern Ireland, when bomb threats were no joke, it was a fascinating move for a coming-of-age comedy, a statement of intent
Striking Out (RTÉ One, Sunday, 9.30pm), the lacquered law drama now in its second series, is set in Dublin in a parallel universe. Much of it is recognisable, like the reflective sheen of the Docklands, touchingly reminiscent of the historical boom, or, in this episode, the crowded interior of a direct provision centre, where Ireland’s refugees exist in a limbo of status.
But much of it is wholly strange, like the slow motion Hollywood downpour that accompanies a re-introduction to its characters, so styleconscious that Striking Out often resembles an advertisement for itself. Or its belief that a burst of emotive oratory can persuade a judge every time. When the show straddles a line between realism and fantasy, your attention snags on otherwise minor plot points. Would the Law Society really “sell off” a deceased solicitor’s outstanding cases to the highest bidder?
To briefly recap the end of season one, Amy Huberman’s roundly cheated solicitor has been betrayed by her breathy investigator Meg; her charming young associate Ray has been framed by the guards; and her firm has been evicted along with her dishy landlord Pete, by her ex-fiancé’s law firm. Tara, a minnow in a lake of pikes, is really up against it.
The facial expression that Huberman employs to break-up with Pete – half sorrow, half apology – is really the only one the show requires of her, never allowing Tara a moment without worry. That informs the tone of the show, just as Huberman’s eyes, I suspect, inform its entire colour palette: a soothing light blue, reflected in the sets and costumes, that makes her gentle sadness seem all-pervasive.
If Tara has problems, the helpless situation between asylum-seeker Promise (Stephanie Levi-John), due for imminent deportation, and love-struck farmer Daniel (An Klondike’s Owen McDonnell) ought to throw them into sharp relief. But for Tara, an incongruous vision on the sheep farm in her retro shades and pencil skirt – part Tippi Hedren, part Cupid – there’s no obstacle that can’t be overcome by some smooth-talk and a dollop of nepotism.
As Promise stirringly provides the dictionary definition of “marriage” to the county registrar, his hard heart thaws in the instant. Seeking a stay of deportation, Tara approaches the Minister of Justice (at a rooftop book launch in Temple Bar, no less), whose hard heart thaws at the mention of Tara’s important family connections. When Promise is reprieved in Terminal 2 by Tara bearing a Minister’s letter, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh. But despite the studied, brooding tone of
Striking Out, its real identity is as something utterly weightless. The world it depicts is full of deception and double-dealing, but at such gossamer moments Striking Out seems most true to itself.
The abracadabra of romance
A few words of wisdom are dispensed early in the first episode of the new series of First Dates
Ireland (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.30pm), which, while hardly original, are key to understanding the show. “Just be yourself,” the suave Maître D tells one nervous suitor “and magic will happen.”
Admittedly, he does not specify what kind of magic we should expect – the abracadabra of romance or the hocus pocus of a manipulative anthropological experiment – but either way the viewers get a “ta-da”.
Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps the programme makers, casting personnel and psychologists who arrange these blind dates really do hope every couple will make a connection. But when we meet Jackie, a larger-than-life Dubliner whose glittering silver dress is a few sizes smaller, then spy the dapper, meek Carlow man Joey, who looks less like her natural dinner companion than something she might find on the menu, you could be forgiven for thinking the recipes here are specifically for disaster.
Actually, they get on like a house on fire, with Joey in the role of the house. The episode’s cuter innovation is to bring two inseparable friends, Leigh and Niamh, both 18 and from Athenry, and see if they can be separated. Niamh, who describes herself as lesbian and vegan, is paired with Isobel, who describes herself as bisexual and vegetarian, and somehow these differences can be bridged.
At a table nearby, Leigh – whippet-thin, smartly dressed and magnificently coiffed – is paired with his reflection. Actually, this is Samuel, whose resemblance is only passing (Leigh, forever primping and preening, might have been happier with the mirror).
Far more than the easy compatibility of Niamh and Isobel, Leigh and Samuel’s date is a
slow-motion car wreck, with all the unforced rapport of an entry-level job interview conducted through a foreign language. “What do you feel is your best quality?” asks Leigh, chin in hand, waiting patiently to volunteer several of his own. “I do think you’re a bit infatuated with yourself,” Sam offers tersely. Leigh takes it in stride. “I’m so chill, I don’t even care.”
Their date can’t end fast enough, which is why the show strings it out for as long as possible, giddily aware that this is what it looks like when magic is happening.
Against this – the incandescent grandeur of deep mutual loathing – you almost miss the fact that Niamh and Isobel have happily split the check and agreed to be mates, or that largerthan-life Jackie has rejected Joey for one simple reason: she is too tall for him. That this is contradicted by casual observation, all forms of measurement and even a loose acquaintance with reality is no matter. Besides, as any franchise dating show knows, there are plenty more fish in the sea.
Statement of intent Derry Girls
When (Channel 4 , Thursday, 10pm) began last week, Lisa McGee’s zippy new comedy series featured a terrorist act in its opening moments. Set in mid-1990s Northern Ireland, when bomb threats were no joke, it was a fascinating move for a coming-of-age comedy, a statement of intent. For one brief second in the hectic home of Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), family life is stilled by the morning news. But it explodes again immediately after.
“Does this mean they can’t get to school?” frets Erin’s beleaguered mother, Mary (Tara Lynne O’Neill), while her aunt Sarah (the sublime Kathy Kiera Clarke), a wide-eyed ditz, worries about missing her tanning session: “They want ordinary people to suffer.”
It’s a sly joke about growing up at a time of armed conflict, and it becomes sharper when Erin’s school friends assess the talent of the British soldier inspecting their school bus. “Some of them are rides,” reasons Erin’s brassy friend Michelle (Jamie Lee O’Donnell). When you’re a teenager living in the shadow of the Troubles, life still goes on.
Besides, McGee can find enough conflict in the classroom, the music charts, or the struggle to be an individual without needing to over-amplify any political context. The pleasure of the series so far, directed with vim by Michael Lennox, is too see the world through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl, where finding some privacy, impressing her crush, or rising in popularity stakes are more immediate troubles than possessing a broader sense of the world.
Told to raid their trust funds for a school trip to Paris by a fellow pupil at Our Lady Immaculate College, they get a rude awakening. “According to my ma, we’re actually quite poor,” reports a perturbed Clare (the excellent Nicola Coughlan).
Like her, the show’s relationship with reality can be hard to determine, given to episodic adventures – getting out of detention to go to a gig, scraping together cash for Paris and win popularity – and screwball twists that feel like nostalgia for a time of simpler formats. That brings a performance style so cartoonishly exaggerated that Tommy Tiernan stands out, as Erin’s dad, by doing very little, while a guest appearance from Kevin McAleer, master of surreal deadpan, steals the show.
But his involvement feels like McGee’s witty tribute: while keeping a diary, listening to The Cranberries and Cyprus Hill, or watching
Murder, She Wrote, Erin might have also seen McAleer on TV in the 1990s, lancing the tedium of the Troubles by simply floating free from them. Derry Girls has a necessarily different spin. But it’s part of that grand tradition.
Clockwise from above: James Maguire, Michelle Mallon, Erin Quinn, Orla McCool and Clare Devlin in Derry Girls; Amy Huberman in
Striking Out; Leigh from First Dates Ireland