Jason Byrne; Baz Ashmawy; Maeve Higgins; Nurse Jackie

by John Boland

Announcing RTE’s autumn and winter schedule a few weeks ago, the station’s new director of programming Steve Carson promised us shows that would “innovate and entertain, inform and initiate,” while his superior Noel Curran vowed that our viewing experience would be enriched by “quality Irish programmes.”

Alas, the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions, and thus two weeks ago we got If Lynch Had Invaded, a documentary so ridiculous both in its concept and in its execution as to be farcical, and this week we were asked to commend The Byrne Ultimatum (RTE2), which already, after only one episode, is a possible contender for worst RTE show ever screened.

Mind you, an RTE press release had warned us that (true to dismal form) “top comedians” were to be “let loose” on RTE2, but even this hadn’t prepared me for Byrne’s show, a panel game so moronic as to make Reeves and Mortimer seem like Morecambe and Wise.

Byrne’s talent, as far as I can discern it, is an ability to shout. He shouts at his panellists, he shouts at the studio audience, and he shouts at the viewer, who after two minutes is cowering behind the settee. Shouting is what Ian Paisley used to do in the bad old days of the North and it’s still a basic tool employed by lunatics on Hyde Park corner, but it’s never struck me as one of the crucial cornerstones of comedy.

However, shouting is what Jason Byrne does and someone in RTE has provided him with a vehicle in which to do it. What he actually shouts is almost incidental, but it includes such gems as that he had to sit through all of Mamma Mia! In order “to get a fiddle off my wife” and the observation that in Ireland “mickeys are always in the dark and only Jesus sees them and thank God for that because if we could see our mickeys we’d be at them all day.”

This level of humour was matched by that of panellists PJ Gallagher and others, and I can only pity the naivete of Rosanna Davison, who allowed herself to be lured on to this testosterone-fuelled, juvenile, inept and entirely unfunny show.

Desperately guessing what a young audience might want to see and missing it by a trillion miles, a bunch of middle-aged Montrose executives approved this nonsense and they also gave the nod to Baz’s Culture Clash (RTE2) which, on the evidence of its first outing, gives a new meaning to the notion of meaninglessness.

Last year, after watching Baz Ahsmawy’s hosting of the lamentable Failte Towers and having also seen  some other forlorn outings in which he’d been involved, I was left wondering about the point of this guy, and  his latest vehicle hasn’t answered my question.

In this week’s first episode, he grinned and grimaced his way through southern California in unserious search of alternative therapies, and all I could think was: why have RTE sanctioned a trip halfway round the world – a trip ultimately paid for by you and me – in pursuit of a half-hour of nothingness?

At least Sarah and Steve, the third show in this Monday night RTE2 assault on our tolerance, cost little enough to make, but that’s really all that can be said in its favour. “If you liked Dan and Becs you’ll like Sarah and Steve,” the continuity announcer chirpily assured us at the outset. Well, I didn’t much like Dan and Becs, but it was of Wildean wit compared with this video diary of a fictional young couple from Tallaght.

The main problem was that I didn’t for one second believe in the characters, who were phoney constructs dreamed up by people (director David Coffey and actor Emmet Kirwan) who seemed to have no idea of how human beings actually talk or behave. Indeed, as I listened to Sarah and Steve confide to camera their tediously unlikely observations, I wished I were watching Gavin and Stacey instead. Now there was a couple you could believe in.

RTE2, though, wasn’t finished with its onslaught on our funny bones, as Tuesday night’s Maeve Higgins’ Fancy Vittles demonstrated. Actually, this was the best of the bunch in so far as I could see what Higgins was attempting to achieve – a whimsical and quirky look at relationships and social behaviour.

It promised more than it delivered, mainly because the script wasn’t up to its intentions. But the faux-naif persona that Higgins created as she chatted to the camera about flirting, small talk and dealing with compliments and cultural differences was quite engaging, as was the kitchen setting in which she prepared a meal for her girlfriends and drew her sister into the conversation. A few good punchlines would have helped, though. As it was, I kept waiting for a few laughs that never quite came.

Thirty minutes earlier, the first episode of US import Nurse Jackie (RTE2) couldn’t decide whether to go for laughs or for pathos and ended up providing neither. Fresh from playing Carmella in The Sopranos, Edie Falco is the main attraction here and she almost makes the whole thing cohere in her portrayal of a world-weary, sardonic yet caring nurse who begins her shift by snorting drugs, while finding time also for some fumbled sex with the hospital pharmacist.

Blood-soaked patients and profanities abound (the series was made for the Showtime cable channel) and some of the writing is very sharp, but there are slushy soap-opera elements, too (doting hubby at home with loving kids), which show a failure of nerve on the part of the makers. Falco, however, is terrific.

In Who Do You Think You Are? (RTE1), the ubiquitous Ryan Tubridy discovered that the paternal side of the family had ancestral links with King John and the Magna Carta. “One of the most outrageous discoveries of my life!” he raved on learning of his aristrocratic roots. Amid all the excitement, the maternal side of his background got short shrift, and it was left to the viewer to ponder how republican grandad Todd Andrews might have viewed this unholy evidence of a treacherous royal alliance.

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