If you think you know what’s go­ing on, you haven’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion

In Dublin dra­mas and un­solved mys­ter­ies, the real story is lurk­ing in the dark be­neath a sur­face sheen

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Peter Craw­ley

The en­tranc­ing ac­tor Denise Gough makes very good choices by play­ing char­ac­ters that rarely do. Fol­low­ing her bravura per­for­mance as Emma, a per­former and ad­dict wrestling with re­cov­ery, in Dun­can Macmil­lan’s bril­liant play Peo­ple, Places and Things and her Val­ium-pop­ping, wildly hal­lu­ci­nat­ing Harper in An­gels in Amer­ica at the Na­tional Theatre in Lon­don, she now plays the ti­tle role in Paula ( RTÉ One, Wed­nes­day, 9pm), an­other woman try­ing to do the right thing, and not suc­ceed­ing.

“Oh, what the f**k am I do­ing?” she whis­pers to her­self, alone in bed with a dis­be­liev­ing shrug. This is a very good ques­tion, and not be­cause Paula’s rash­ness is im­plau­si­ble, but rather be­cause Gough makes it seem all too real. So far, she has just about re­buffed Phillip (Ed­ward MacLiam), a fel­low teacher in a rugby-play­ing boys’ school, with whom she has had an ill-ad­vised af­fair, then im­pul­sively slept with the handy­man, James ( Tom Hughes), who has come to clear her base­ment of rats.

“This is mad­ness,” she tells James. “You could be a psy­cho for all I know.” If only it was that sim­ple.

Writ­ten by Conor McPher­son, in the ac­claimed play­wright’s first tele­vi­sion script, Paula is a drama about ob­ses­sion, set in a ver­sion of Dublin that is part noir, part psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror. This ex­plains why no­body ever switches on a light bulb, pre­fer­ring to slip around in moody shad­ows and the glow of street-lamp flu­o­res­cence. Un- der Alex Holmes’s di­rec­tion, they’ve ei­ther got some­thing to hide, or they’re neu­rot­i­cally com­mit­ted to sav­ing en­ergy.

McPher­son’s sharp, un­der­stated dia­logue, Holmes’ brisk pac­ing and Gough’s ex­pert per­for­mance ini­tially sug­gest a care­ful real­ism, yet the show keeps nudg­ing at some­thing be­yond. Take the de­scend­ing sil­hou­ettes of Gough and MacLiam as they war­ily in­spect her base­ment. Or the sus­pi­ciously good-look­ing James, given a men­ac­ing in­ten­sity by Hughes.

Still, the most un­set­tling thing about Paula, to Dublin view­ers at least, will be the weird shape-shift­ing char­ac­ter it af­fords the city. Set firmly in the cap­i­tal, but filmed in North­ern Ire­land, ev­ery­thing seems slightly un­canny, as though Dublin had been shifted into a vivid but un­set­tled dream. That ac­cen­tu­ates the creep­ing un­ease of the show.

The en­cour­ag­ing first episode of a three-part drama ends with a body in a quarry, a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion and no ob­vi­ous res­o­lu­tion. That seems ap­pro­pri­ate. If Belfast can now pass as eas­ily for Dublin as it does for Wes­teros, then noth­ing is what it seems.

Alone in a New York City loft, mon­i­tor­ing a large glass cage, one young man flatly ex­plains his role: “I’m sup­posed to watch the box and see if any­thing ap­pears in­side.” View­ers of Twin Peaks ( Sky At­lantic, Mon­day, 2am/Tues, 9pm), back af­ter an in­ter­val of 26 years, will know ex­actly how he feels.

The short-lived and never-for­got­ten se­ries gave us many things: a plot McGuf­fin summed up as “Who killed Laura Palmer?”; a time-warped sense of small-town Amer­i­cana; and, in Kyle McLaugh­lan’s Agent Cooper, a pro­tag­o­nist of cof­fee-and-cherry-pie ap­pre­ci­at­ing whole­some­ness whose in­ves­ti­ga­tions took him be­tween a gallery of weird ec­centrics and red-cur­tained an­techam­bers where clues were dis­pensed by back­wards-talk­ing dwarves. In short, David Lynch had his own TV show.

Air­ing Part One and Part Two to­gether, be­cause any­thing less might seem co­her­ent, the new se­ries typ­i­cally re­fuses to set­tle down. A present-day Cooper, still con­fined to the lim­i­nal space of the Black Lodge, lis­tens to a thicket of gib­ber­ish from the Gi­ant and replies, “I un­der­stand.” (If spec­tral evil is one of the show’s peaks, the other has al­ways been self-re­flex­ive com­edy.)

In NYC, we get the sign-posted sus­pense and much of the dia­logue of a 1950s B-Movie Hor­ror. Equally far- flung and goofily comic set­tings are in­tro­duced then aban­doned. Dale Cooper’s evil dop­pel­ganger ap­pears in a raven mul­let, ap­par­ently the leader of a vi­cious gang. And in South Dakota, a ghoul­ish mur­der is dis­cov­ered, and pinned on the lo­cal school prin­ci­pal.

How these con­nect, of course, is con­sid­er­ably less in­volv­ing than Lynch’s de­na­tured style: a campy aes­thetic given dead­pan de­liv­ery. If, by the end of these re-in­tro­duc­tory two hours, you can fol­low what is hap­pen­ing, then you haven’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion.

Devo­tees will have the swoon­ing pa­tience nec­es­sary to stick with Lynch’s in­ter- min­gling of dream states and the wak­ing world. But oth­ers may take so­lace from the words of Mar­garet Lan­ter­man – The Log Lady – in a sen­ti­ment made more poignant since the death of her ac­tor, Cather­ine Coul­son. “Hawk, watch care­fully,” she says, with some ef­fort. “I’m too weak to go with you… Please let me know what hap­pens.”

In the new doc­u­men­tary, The Keep­ers ( Net­flix, now stream­ing), a Bal­ti­more po­lice de­tec­tive ad­mits, “In homi­cide, time is a de­stroyer. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get good ev­i­dence.”

To the arm­chair sleuth, though, so-called “cold cases” have been a boon to what we might call “binge de­tec­tion”.

When the pod­cast Se­rial be­gan, in 2014, over-ea­ger lis­ten­ers may have felt like they were as­sist­ing Sarah Koenig’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the 1999 mur­der of Hae Min Lee. Later The Jinx and Mak­ing a Mur­derer sup­plied view­ers with reams of cu­rated ev­i­dence and a sus­pi­cion that jus­tice is rarely served.

One crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence with The Keep­ers, which fo­cuses on the un­solved mur­der of a young Bal­ti­more nun, Sr Cathy Ces­nik, in 1969, is that it fore­grounds its own ama­teur in­ves­ti­ga­tors. These are for­mer stu­dents of Cen­snik’s, led by Gemma Hoskins and Ab­bie Schaub, pre­sented as a cou­ple of re­tiree Nancy Drews, com­pil­ing re­search, con­duct­ing in­ter­views and con­ven­ing on­line groups. “I don’t think there’s any shame in not suc­ceed­ing,” Schaub con­fides. “But it would be a shame not to try.”

What the doc­u­men­tary un­earths, how­ever, is more hor­ri­fy­ing than any­thing they ex­pected, de­tail­ing years of sys­tem­atic child sex­ual abuse at the hands of the school chap­lain, Joseph Maskell. Ces­nik, a con­fi­dante to the girls, seemed ready to ex­pose it. The doc­u­men­tary shifts fo­cus to “Jane Doe”, the sur­vivor Jean Har­gadon Wehner who came for­ward in the 1990s, who re­mem­bered Maskell had shown her Ces­nik’s dead body, with the warn­ing: “You see what hap­pens when you say bad things about peo­ple?”

The Keep­ers in­spires many things: sor­row, com­pas­sion, sus­pi­cion and anger chief among them. But in form, con­tent and tone, it is quite timely in its deep dis­trust of au­thor­ity and its de­ter­mi­na­tion to take back power. These killings and the abuses were met with dis­tress­ing in­dif­fer­ence. “The cover-up it­self is the can­cer in­side Bal­ti­more,” says one jour­nal­ist.

That this is all likely to de­stroy any re­main­ing faith in in­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity may be no bad thing. Be­cause The Keep­ers ac­tu­ally re­deems your faith in peo­ple. Tire­less, sup­port­ive and bravely ar­tic­u­late, all these years later, the sur­vivors lead this in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and even if the sat­is­fac­tion of jus­tice is too late to achieve, their ef­forts to get an­swers are none­the­less stir­ring. These good peo­ple are the find­ers.

‘Paula’ is a drama about ob­ses­sion, set in a ver­sion of Dublin that is part noir, part psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SHOW­TIME

Kyle MacLach­lan and Sh­eryl Lee in a scene from the new sea­son of Twin Peaks.

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