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TV 23: A great year on the box

John Byrne looks back on some of the small screen highlights of what was a pretty memorable year for both Irish productions and the ever-increasing range from terrestrial, satellite and streaming services from abroad.

Say what you like about 2023 being a bit of a rough year. In TV terms, it was one of the better ones.

This was the year we said goodbye to Succession, Happy Valley, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and Smother – but hello to the likes of Obituary, The Last of Us, Wolf, Poker Face and Colin from Accounts.

It was also quite a year for comebacks.

First up was the rebirth of the original reality show, Big Brother, then the much-loved Aussie soap Neighbours returned, and later on Frasier reappeared, both as a show and back in Boston.

Roisin Gallagher did the double by starring in two hit shows, The Dry and The Lovers, while The Crown descended into parody and Elena Ferrante proved My Brilliant Friend was no fluke with The Lying Life of Adults.

The White Lotus (above) had a fun second season in Sicily, Dáithí Ó Sé and Kathryn Thomas were the first ever co-hosts of The Rose of Tralee, while fiction flipped as Squid Game gave birth to Squid Game: The Challenge.

The Robbie Willams and David Beckham docs rocked, but Irish documentaries enjoyed a remarkable year with the likes of The Peculiar Sensation of Being Pat Ingoldsby and the phenomenal Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland.

And then there was Ryan Tubridy’s Late Late Show departure and the arrival of Patrick Kielty.

It’s been a big year for the small screen, so here we go with 10 top TV picks from both Home and Away . .

HOME

Patrick: A Young Traveller Lost (RTÉ One)

As heartbreaking documentaries go, this is one of the most affecting (and affectionate) you’ll ever see.

It looks into the alarmingly high suicide rates among the Irish Traveller community through the harrowing and deeply personal story of 12-year-old Patrick McDonagh from Finglas in Dublin.

Patrick’s parents spoke about the deep and profound loss of their son, while broader issues facing the Traveller community were also highlighted.

The Dry (RTÉ One)

2023 was a great year for Roisin Gallagher, who starred here as Shiv Sheridan, and in Sky romantic comedy/drama The Lovers.

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In Nancy Harris’s dysfunctional dramedy, Shiv is an Irish woman recovering from alcoholism, who returns home to Dublin to face a family who are not terribly supportive of her sobriety.

Quirky, and with a great supporting cast that included Ciarán Hinds, Pom Boyd and Moe Dunford, The Dry was greenlit for a second run before it even screened on RTÉ One.

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland (BBC Two)

This is – by some distance – the most compelling, heartbreaking yet heartwarming documentary I’ve seen about what we call The Troubles.

Marking 25 years since the Good Friday agreement largely ended the conflict, it’s more than a journey through the decades that defined the era.

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It mixes archive footage with close-ups of people talking about their personal experiences and the impact on their lives to the present day.

TV series of the year and no mistake.

Obituary (RTÉ One)

This quirky black comedy reminded me of the kind of shows Bryan Fuller used to put together in the USA earlier this century, the likes of Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me.

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An irresistibly deadpan Siobhán Cullen stars as Elvira Clancy, a Gen Z journalist who finds her gig as an obituary writer at a rural newspaper in jeopardy. People just aren’t dying like they used to.

In order to remain in gainful employment, she begins murdering people she doesn’t like. Problem is, she discovers that she enjoys the activity.

The Late Late Show (RTÉ One)

To whom it concerned, September 15th saw Patrick Kielty open a brand-new chapter in The Late Late Show story as the latest host, succeeding Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny and Ryan Tubridy.

Being the first non-Dub to take on the role, he’s brought a bit of Everyman to the Late Late, while his background in stand up makes for a snappier, less informal night of chat and entertainment.

As well as taking a back seat to the kids on The Toy Show, he also hosted a memorable episode that celebrated the life of Shane MacGowan.

The Peculiar Sensation of Being Pat Ingoldsby (RTÉ One)

In a world full of conformity, deflection, frustration, anger and inhumanity, Pat Ingoldsby stands out as a beacon of virtue and individualism.

This film follows Pat’s path, where his poetry and personal anecdotes reveal a visceral relationship with his beloved Dublin, fellow Dubliners and anything that catches his interest.

Brought up in Malahide, he rejected the bog-standard, superannuated middle-class lifestyle that seemed inevitable, and decided to live life his way – for better or worse.

Northern Lights (TG4)

It’s always good to see new Irish talent emerging and this six-part drama by (and starring) Dublin actor Stephen Jones shows the artistic well here is far from dry.

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Before this, I’d only heard of Jones through the Shamrock Rovers’ fan podcast Tales From the East Stand. A Tallaght native, he’s a Hoop as well as a thesp. Now he’s the creator of a TV show.

Deadpan Pictures – who gave us the delightful Dead Still – liked Jones’ two-handed play about grieving strangers whose worlds collide on Dublin’s quays, and encouraged him to develop it into a TV series.

You can check out the impressive results via the TG4 Player.

In The Name of Gerry Conlon (RTE One)

This is a beautiful documentary by Lorenzo Moscia.

In 1974, Gerry Conlon and three others were sentenced to life in prison for an IRA bombing they didn’t commit.

The Guildford Four were finally released in 1989 and Conlon dedicated the rest of his life to being a world-famous human rights activist.

Moscia met him just two months before his death, recording this testament to a remarkable and inspirational life.

Kin (RTE One)

Just as Ireland is fascinated with the criminal world, this second season of Kin proved that Love/Hate was no fluke in terms of Great Irish Drama.

Is it fair to say that we Irish are just good at crime?

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In this latest run, the Kinsella family was thriving in the wake of Eamon Cunningham’s death. Well, until a Turkish drug cartel turned up.

What always drives shows such as this is a combination of good writing and casting. And this one – even with the departure of Ciaran Hinds after season one – is exceptional.

Kevin Moran: Codebreaker (RTE One)

Yet another great true-life story – I could’ve easily filled the ten domestic picks with quality documentaries – this time telling the singular sporting life of Kevin Moran.

Many Irish youngsters dream of winning an All-Ireland, or maybe playing for Manchester United, or even playing for Ireland in the World Cup Finals.

Remarkably, Kevin Moran managed all three.

A star of the Dublin gaelic football team of the mid-1970’s, he switched to professional football in England with Manchester United and played for Ireland at Italia 90 and Euro 88.

Roy of the Rovers has nothing on Kevin Moran!

AWAY

The Lying Lives of Adults (Netflix)

Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels led to the superb and sumptuous My Brilliant Friend series from Sky Italia, and this Netflix adaptation of her 2019 novel of the same name proves that success was not a once-off.

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It tells the tale of Giovanna Trada, a teenage girl born to a well-to-do family in Naples.

As she makes the transition from childhood to adolescence she struggles to find an identity among the bourgeoisie world of her parents and is drawn to her rebellious Aunt Vittoria.

She has been ostracized from the family for years and lives in a rough part of Naples. And Naples is a rough town.

Gradually, Giovanna realises her family is steeped in hypocrisy and unspeakable secrets. She’s learning the ways of adulthood . . .

Happy Valley (BBC One)

Sarah Lancashire will do well – remarkably well – if she ever improves on her performances as weathered police officer Catherine Cawood in Sally Wainwright’s superb drama.

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Fans had waited all of six years for the third and final season. Cawood is about to retire but still in the shadow of an incarcerated Tommy Lee Royce, played terrifyingly well by James Norton.

The final run of this often-grim series was tense and essential viewing. The truly scary thing though is that this is a fair reflection of life in northern England in these grim, post-Brexit days.

The Last of Us (Sky Atlantic)

I’d imagine I wasn’t the only one watching this show who was oblivious to the video game that inspired it, a battle of survival during a zombie plague.

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Set twenty years into a pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection, it stars Pedro Pascal as Joel, a smuggler who has the unenviable task of escorting immune teenager Ellie (played by a brilliant Bella Ramsey) across an unrecognisable USA.

You could call it a common tale told with uncommon skill. It was irresistible, with episode three (the Bill and Frank story) a particular stand-out.

Fleishmann is in Trouble (Disney+)

This is the one show that really blew me away this year.

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An adaptation of a hit novel, it stars Jesse Eisenberg as a doctor, the eponymous Toby Fleishmann whose ex-wife – played by Claire Danes – goes off to a yoga camp and then disappears, leaving him confused and alone with their kids.

The series also features Lizzy Caplan – who is nothing short of brilliant here – and Adam Brody as another couple, old friends of Toby’s, and it’s essentially a look at the tedium of middle-class folk in middle age and life in suburbia.

First world problems, certainly. But also a first-rate tale told superbly.

The Gilded Age (Sky Atlantic)

After a ho-hummish first season, Julian Fellowes’ period drama set in New York at the end of the 19th Century has stepped up a couple of gears.

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It still looks great – the costumes are lavish, while Morgan Spector’s beard is pure Captain Haddock – and the Carrie Coon-led cast are all in top form, but the storylines have improved immeasurably.

Subplots are where shows like this can really shine, and while the attempts of the new-moneyed Russell family to impress Manhattan’s elite remain central, the goings-on at the van Rhijn-Brook house were captivating.

Cynthia Nixon though. Wow!

Squid Game: The Challenge (Netflix)

Dystopian drama Squid Game was a hugely successful show for Netflix, so turning it into an actual reality show was always on the cards.

Inspired by the Korean series, competitors had to take part in memorable challenges with a hefty $4.56m on offer for the ultimate winner, Mai Whelan (Player 287).

Obviously, death was not on the menu here. But success certainly was, as the show’s been greenlit for a second season.

Life imitates art. Yet again.

Succession (Sky Atlantic)

I’m kind of concerned that this show will mark a turning point in humanity. Once upon a time, only the very wealthy behaved like this.

Now, it seems that everyone’s becoming a foul-mouthed, narcissistic ass.

The biggest surprise in the fourth and final season wasn’t that they killed off vile patriarch Logan Roy (majestically played by Brian Cox), but that Succession’s Shakespearian influence morphed delightfully from King Lear into Macbeth.

But as a warring ex-couple, the most fun was had watching Sara Snook and Matthew Macfadyen slug it out as Shiv Roy and Tom Wambsgans.

Barry (Sky Atlantic)

Here’s a great – and quite groundbreaking – show that went pretty much under the radar.

I’m not going to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it, as I would highly recommend Bill Hader’s delightfully dark (midnight black, really) comedy about the eponymous Barry Berkman, a hitman-turned-amateur actor.

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Hader was great in the lead role, but so was Sarah Goldberg as girlfriend and ambitious actress Sally Reed. But best of all was Henry Winkler – probably best-known here for being The Fonz in Happy Days.

He was just fantastic as Barry’s mentor Gene Cousineau.

If you’ve seen the show, you know. If you haven’t – please, please, please check it out.

Colin from Accounts (RTE2 & BBC Two)

Australian TV is mostly known in Ireland for producing long-running soaps such as Neighbours, Home and Away and A Country Practice, as well as Skippy The Bush Kangaroo and female convict drama Prisoner: Cell Block H.

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Then more recently we’ve had the hugely enjoyable drama The Newsreader, and this year’s sleeper hit, the comedy Colin from Accounts.

Co-created and written by husband-and-wife team Harriet Dyer and Patrick Brammall (who also popped up on US show Evil), they play an unlikely couple who are brought together after an accident that results in a crippled stray dog in need of full-time care.

It doesn’t sound like much, but a mix of snappy dialogue, downbeat humour and Brammal’s irresistible Gordon makes it a joy to watch.

Poker Face (Sky Max)

Maybe, at last, Natasha Lyonne has found the starring role she deserves.

Russian Doll petered out after a very promising opening season, while this quirky homage to 1970s’ quirky crime-solving shows looks to have another gear or two to go.

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Knives Out’s Rhian Johnson is the brains behind it all, while Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a casino worker on the run from Very Bad People.

She gets caught up in mysterious deaths of strangers along the way – all because she can instinctively tell when people are lying.

A bonus is the quality of show’s guest star performers, including the likes of Adrien Brody, Chloë Sevigny, Nick Nolte and Rhea Perlman.

More, please and thank you.


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