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