Tv of the Decade

by John Boland

It was the decade in which there were more programmes than ever to watch, though just as few worth watching. Indeed, more invariably means less, and so when the very finite number of good programmes capable of being made are spread over 187 channels, they hardly register amid the gunge that surrounds them. There’s only ever been one Fawlty Towers, one Seinfeld and one Royle Family, which means that a 24-hour comedy channel must fill 95 per cent of its schedules with reruns of Last of the Summer Wine, My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. The same goes for lifestyle, history, biography and discovery channels.

But it was also the decade in which, with unprecedented ease, you could record the few pearls among the dross. Gone were cumbersome videos, gone even were the DVD recorders in which some of us foolishly invested a few years back. Instead, in came the facility to record straight into your television set – not just individual programmes but whole series in advance at the press of a button. And the same technology means that you can freeze Bryan Dobson’s live news bulletin live in mid-sentence and return to him when you’ve finished answering the doorbell, or immediately rewind Pat Kenny’s The Frontline if you didn’t quite catch something that a panellist said.

These are genuine boons, not least for a television critic, but while they enhance the ways in which we watch programmes, they can’t do anything about the substance of what we watch, and there’s been no indication in the past ten years that the BBC or RTE or Channel 4 are making better programmes, or even want to. In fact, encouraged by what they insist is a mania for reality and lifestyle shows (though ratings often prove otherwise), they’ve been cramming their schedules with material whose cheapness to make is in inverse ratio to its value as honest entertainment. In such circumstances, the notion of public service broadcasting – programmes that both enlighten and entertain – takes a hiding.

And as a result, viewer allegiance inevitably diminishes, too. When RTE programmes are just as tawdry and vacuous and unrelated to your life in Ireland as anything you’ll see elsewhere, why remain loyal to it – especially when you’ll find those occasional Frontline outbursts or Late Late gaffes on YouTube, thus saving you the bother of having to watch the actual show? 

Yes, good programmes have been made in the last ten years, some of them by RTE, but our viewing habits have become more and more fragmented and our supposed national broadcaster doesn’t seem equipped to do anything to check, or even address, the increasing fickleness of its audience. In this respect, TG4 is a more obviously Irish undertaking, and not just because much of its programming is through the medium of Irish – it actually has a coherent sense of what national broadcasting should be and over the last decade has comes up with more good and relevant programmes than its budget would seem to permit.

It’s a minority channel, though, and will never command large audiences. But a directionless RTE could easily end up as a minority channel, too, fighting for an audience share with TV3, 3e, ITV, Bravo, UK Gold and Hallmark. It’s not a foregone conclusion, but if Montrose doesn’t rediscover a real identity for itself and stop aping the worst of what’s being made elsewhere, viewers may well start to ask: why bother?        



This was the ultimate television moment, not just of the past decade but of any decade. Forget the JFK assassination and the death of Diana. Forget Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom and Neil Armstrong’s small step for mankind. All of these recede into pallid memories when set against the images that assaulted the eyes and confounded the imagination of anyone who happened to be watching Sky News on September 11, 2001, at 2pm Greenwich Mean Time and saw an airplane appear out of nowhere and crash into the  World Trade Centre. In that heart-stopping instant, bewilderment reigned, yet it immediately became clear that something monstrous and irreversible had just occurred, and in that obscenely cinematic moment – Hollywood outdone at its own game by a bunch of fanatical amateurs – it was impossible not to sense that the world would never be quite the same again. 


There are quite a few contenders for best drama series. A persuasive case could be made for The Wire (even if some of us felt that, though brilliantly scripted and performed, it was never quite as astonishing or, indeed, meaningful, as its admirers claimed), and also for Six Feet Under, while Lost,  Band of Brothers, The Shield and Mad Men have their devotees, too. All of these, it’s worth noting, are American-made, and it’s difficult to think of any British series that has had anything like the same impact as these US imports. And while The Sopranos may have premiered in 1999, it wasn’t until the early Noughties that  it began to truly earn its reputation as a dense, complex drama, operatic in its violent exhuberance but perversely comic, too, and richly layered in its writing and acting. Like most other long-running series, it outstayed its welcome but ended with a memorable dying fall in 2007, its  final moments managing to be both ambiguous and haunting.


While some may think that Ricky Gervais’s The Office (2001) ushered in the comedy of cringe, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David had patented and perfected squirm-inducing laughs a year earlier. Fans of Seinfeld had already learned that David was the George character, but George, though idiotic, was essentially loveable, whereas in Curb Your Enthusiasm David presented an anti-hero so lacking in social sensitivity as to make his earlier persona seem a model of tact and decorum. And while I personally prefer the easier laughs that are to be got from Charlie Sheen in Two-and-a-Half Men or Kevin James in The King of Queens, David must be commended for creating a character with no redeeming qualities and for locating such grotesque comedy in his anti-social antics. It’s never been easy to watch, though. 


It’s easy to deplore the intimidating ubiquity of sports coverage on television, but for anyone with even a passing interest in football, rugby, hurling, racing, tennis, golf or athletics there’s no denying the professional expertise with which the medium now approaches it – an expertise that’s only fully appreciated when we look at archive footage from the 1960s, 1970s or even 1980s. And RTE’s sports coverage in the last ten years has generally been outstanding, whether of GAA fixtures, international football and rugby or the Olympics. Indeed, while much sports commentary can be either superficial or cretinously fanzine, we’ve been blessed in this country with punditry that’s unusually intelligent and engaging – I’m thinking especially of Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Liam Brady on soccer and of George Hook, Brent Pope and Conor O’Shea on rugby: far more articulate and absorbing than their BBC or Sky counterparts.


Ireland’s a small country and you don’t expect it to figure prominently in lists of the decade’s most significant programmes, but Sean O Mordha’s documentary account of how this State evolved in the 20th century remains a landmark achievement – perfectly judged and nuanced in its assemblage of facts and perfectly weighted, too, in its editorial decisions and in the interpretative balance it took such great pains to achieve. Here was a real history lesson, though with none of the dogged dutifulness that term might suggest. In fact, it was thrilling television, both absorbing and enlightening.


This 2002 film lingers in the memory as the decade’s most riveting drama. Director Paul Greengrass would go on to use the same jolting cinema verite techniques in United 93, in the action set-pieces of the Jason Bourne movies and in Omagh, but nowhere was visceral form better fused with dramatic and emotional substance than in this extraordinarily immediate evocation of that fateful morning and afternoon in Derry. Pontecorvo may have pioneered the technique in The Battle of Algiers, but Greengrass reinvented and refined it.


At their finest, documentaries have always been among the glories of television. In the past decade, BBC2’s The Nazis: A Warning from History was an outstanding series, while on a local level RTE1’s Hidden History and Arts Lives slots also came up with films of real substance. But from its inception the BBC’s Storyville strand has almost invariably denoted excellence, whether in films about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights, the losing of Vietnam and the horror of Srebrenica, or in-depth profiles of political fixer Lee Atwater, Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and fasion guru Versace. This has been documentary-making as it should be.      


Despite the fact that Ireland can boast a theatrical tradition that runs from Congreve and Sheridan to Wilde and Synge and from O’Casey and Beckett to Friel and MacPherson, drama has never been RTE’s strong suit. However, once in a blue moon – or maybe a decade – our national broadcaster comes up with the goods. In this case it was from an outside production company, which caught a moment and a mood (a very Celtic Tigerish moment and mood) and made a funny and absorbing series notable for its alert script, shrewd characterisations, fluent acting and mastery of tone.


The Simpsons dominated the 1990s but succumbed to laziness and and sycophancy in the Noughties, flattering rather than filleting their celebrity guests (the Ricky Gervais episode was especially awful in the uncritical indulgence it afforded its preening star). Then along came Family Guy to breathe a bracing breath of foul air into animated comedy, cramming in more gags and parodies per minute than any other show has ever managed. Scared of its bawdy and politically incorrect rudeness, Richard Murdoch’s Fox network killed it after a season, but Seth McFarlane and his team went on making it for a cult DVD audience – an audience that became so big Fox were forced to endorse it again.


The received wisdom is that, in the past decade, the most creative filmmaking talents in America spurned Hollywood and opted for television instead. There seems no reason to dispute that view, though it was in cable television, which has none of the censorship restrictions that straitjacket NBC and CBS, that they chiefly prospered. HBO is the king of these channels and in the past decade has been responsible for The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, In Treatment, Deadwood and Flight of the Conchords. The list speaks for itself.    



Or Jeremy Vile, as some of us choose to call him. Of all the shows that encourage the basest instincts of its studio and viewing audience, this ITV exercise in fomenting hatred has proved to be the most loathsome.


Yes, I know Anne Robinson’s probably just playing a supercilious, domineering and horrible bitch, but if so why is she so convincing? Time was when Richard Whiteley beamed at contestants in Countdown, William G Stewart was earnestly avuncular on Fifteen to One and even Chris Tarrant clucked sympathetically at wrong answers on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. But these are the nasty Noughties when scorn and sneering reign and when someone like Robinson can achieve celebrity.


Men behaving badly, though that makes Jeremy Clarkson and his insufferably smug colleagues sound interesting rather than merely juvenile. But no one ever lost money by underestimating the taste of the public, which is the only explanation for this show’s worldwide success.


One of the abiding mysteries of RTE television is that it keeps coming up with new formats for Gerry Ryan, the ultimate face for radio. I’ve lost track of the TV manifestations RTE has afforded him (he even got a one-off shot at the Late Late) but his drooling over celebrities in Ryan Confidential was especially gruesome.  


RTE’s embracing of reality television was both belated and spectacularly inept – epitomised by a boat that sank on Treasure Island, thereby causing the series to be abandoned. And let’s not forget (if you can remember) the manure that was Celebrity Farm. So it may be unfair to single out Failte Towers, but, god, it was ghastly – a show of such incompetence and embarrassment that the only way of watching it was while hiding behind the sofa.


Channel 4 loves these documentaries and so does TV3. The World’s Fattest Woman, Fifty Disgusting Operations, The Biggest Penis on the Planet, My Girlfriend Has a Willy, The Amazing Things People Put Into Their Bodies. I’ve only made one of these titles up.


A list of all the would-be comedians and comedy shows that have been indulged by RTE over the last ten years would fill this entire piece. When will they ever learn? Irish people may be hilarious in pubs (actually, they’re not) but that doesn’t mean every Tom, Dick and Mary Mac should be given their own show. 


You chop your vegetables, you put your rib roast in the oven, you make a leek and potato soup and bake a cake. It’s no big deal. Your mother did it, you do it. So why would you want to spend a half-hour watching Camilla in her Carcassonne kitchen, Belinda in her Bordeaux bistro and Tamina in her Turin trattoria doing the same thing?


Don’t get me going on Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen, Diarmuid Gavin, Gong Wok, Kirstie Allsop or Trinny and Susannah. Who are these people and why are we being asked to watch them?


Could someone please explain this charmless woman’s continued presence on television throughout the decade? And I could say the same about quite a few RTE presenters. I’m sure you know who they are.


Humankind, according to TS Eliot, cannot bear much reality. That may well be true but, by jingo, it can’t get enough of reality television, which has been the main television phenomenon of the past decade. And while some of us were predicting its demise from early on – about halfway through the first season of Big Brother in 2,000, actually – it shows no sign of abating.

It has its apologists, mostly earnest academics with degrees in sociology who see it as a triumph for democracy rather than as a cheap way of filling the schedules. But there’s nothing remotely democratic about it – Endemol and the other production companies who own the franchises are lining their pockets by means of the short-lived celebrity and the long-term humiliation of those deluded enough to participate in Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity, The Apprentice and other hit reality shows. Jade Goody was merely their most famous victim – if anyone can now recall exactly for what, beyond her death, she was famous.

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