TV Review of the Year 2009

by John Boland

It was the year in which RTE’s marketing gurus vanquished and routed serious programme makers. Certainly, I can’t think of a twelve-month period in which RTE made fewer programmes of substance or quality, but, hey, who needs programmes at all when you can marvel at Montrose’s mission to turn every  nonentity on its payroll into a celebrity?

A copy of the RTE Guide from a few months back summed up the national broadcaster’s current priorities. Shot in the manner of an Annie Leibovitz Hollywood spread for Vanity Fair, its gatefold cover featured Pat Kenny, Brendan Courtney and Aidan Power lounging around in formal attire, like  Roger Moore stand-ins on an old Bond movie, while ranged among them were six female presenters looking determinedly sultry in fetching ballgowns. The accompanying large-print caption assured us that these nine worthies were television’s “hottest stars,” even though three of them had barely registered in my consciousness, while the headline welcomed us to “TV Heaven.”

Well, to each his own paradise, though viewers with any hankering for cultural nourishment or even honest-to-god entertainment might well feel that in 2008 RTE spent most of its resources and energies putting them through hell. But we’re living in an era in which such considerations are obviously deemed to be of no importance, an era in which Podge and Rodge can confirm to a simpering Blanaid Ni Chofaigh that she’s adorned the cover of the RTE Guide on five recent occasions. Ah, the allure of afternoon television – or, as we call it down my way, rubbish.

But why strive for quality when this witless level is what’s being celebrated by our national broadcaster? Why bother with originality when it’s easier to buy existing formats – including the actual logos – from  broadcasters across the water?  And so RTE foisted on us Who Do You Think You Are? And TV3 reproduced (quite impressively, it must be said) The Apprentice, and we were supposed not to notice that they were direct steals from elsewhere.

And the few attempts during the year at coming up with home-grown formats for light entertainment or reality shows were mostly lamentable. One that especially stays in the memory (I wish it wouldn’t) was RTE1’s Marry Me, in which people were required to propose to unsuspecting loved ones in grotesquely contrived circumstances.

The money that was required to come up with this nonsense and much else like it could, of course, have been diverted towards something worth viewing, but why bother doing that when RTE is so flush with cash (ours, as it happens) it can instead choose to spend a fortune sending Dustin off to invite the derision of millions at the Eurovision Song Contest?

RTE did display a wish to be taken seriously on a few occasions throughout the year, notably in its documentary strand, but some of the factual programming that it seemed most pleased about didn’t bear the weight of rigorous scrutiny. This was especially true of the slickly made and often engrossing but essentially shallow and opportunistic Bertie, in which circumstances dictated that the filmmakers could only stand idly by as our former Taoiseach doggedly stuck to his denials. News may be history in the making, but only time can provide true history.

Nor was Whistleblower, a drama about obstetrician Michael Neary, all that RTE cracked it up to be, its reliance on cheap soap opera cliches constantly undermining its pretence of social realism and meaningful crusading. A documentary would have been far preferable, though the factual virtues of Cromwell in Ireland didn’t prevent that series from being somewhat worthily dull.

Alan Gilsenan’s The Importance of Being Irish, on the other hand, was under the mistaken impression that it was being profound when it was merely being trite. And one of the year’s most controversial documentaries, Fairytale of Kathmandu, left me feeling very uneasy, not just about the sexual activities of poet Cathal O Searcaigh but also about how the film ambushed him in its later stages.

RTE’s sports coverage was, as always, excellent and its news presentation and analysis pretty impressive, too, but its attempts at drama and comedy were generally wretched, while its lifestyle shows seemed mainly intent on creating celebs out of presenters who were either blandly uninteresting or downright irritating, though I’ll make an exception of Trish, who was unfussy and charming in her Paris kitchen.

TG4 screened far more documentaries of quality and interest than RTE did, while TV3 finally got off its import-heavy backside and came up with some home-produced programmes of more than passing interest – How the Irish Have Sex was far better than its title suggested, the nightly Vincent Browne current affairs show proved to have staying power, while The Apprentice provided the unsettling spectacle, not just of Bill Cullen in Rottweiler mode but of his truly scary sidekick Jackie Lavin, too.

Even RTE didn’t disturb our nights to quite that degree.

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