Culture Shock: ‘Love/Hate’ needs to go to the wire – and steal, not borrow
The fourth series of RTÉ’s gangland drama was missing something crucial: the politics of ‘The Wire’ and the strong female world of ‘The Sopranos’
Wiretapping: Love/Hate could learn from Sonja Sohn, Idris Elba and Dominic West, in The Wire. Photograph: HBO
Strong women: The Sopranos. Photograph: HBO
The adage that no good deed goes unpunished applies to the arts as well. When stuff is not very good but trying hard, it generally gets the benefit of the doubt. This has often been the case with Irish television drama. There is no better example than the first series of Love/Hate. It was far from brilliant, but almost everybody wanted it to work. It was ambitious, it had guts. Stuart Carolan was an obviously brilliant writer finding his feet in TV. We were thrilled to see top-class Irish screen actors such as Aidan Gillen, Robert Sheehan and Ruth Negga coming home. The sense that something serious was afoot generated enough goodwill to get Love/Hate over the bump of a rocky start.
Over the next two seasons Love/Hate dissipated that goodwill in the best possible way: it didn’t need it. It was no longer trying hard – it was succeeding. Samuel Johnson’s analogy with a dog standing on its hind legs – “the wonder is not that it is done well but that it is done at all” – was blown away by the growing evidence that it was being done very well indeed. And, because of this shift, Love/Hate began to be seen in a different light. It was no longer an Irish gangster drama but a gangster drama, full stop. It created a context in which the benefit of the doubt would be parochial and patronising. It stopped being compared, in the minds of most viewers, with RTÉ’s previous, sometimes feeble efforts in the genre and started to be placed in the same frame as The Sopranos and The Wire.
Hence the widespread sense of disappointment with the fourth series and particularly with its ho-hum culmination. If the fourth series had been the first, we would have been breathless with wonder at how good it was. Instead it feels not as good as it could be. It can’t avoid comparisons with the best of the golden age of American TV drama. Indeed, the fourth season invited those comparisons even further with its borrowings from The Wire. The new elements – the police surveillance unit and the ghetto kids sucked into the drug economy and spat out again – came straight from the David Simon playbook.
And quite right, too. When you’re living in a golden age you’d be mad to settle for brass. Love/Hate does need to benchmark itself against the very best, not least because its audience is already doing so. The only thing wrong with such borrowings is that they don’t go far enough. What Love/Hate needs to do is not to borrow from The Wire and The Sopranos but to steal. It has to take possession of what those shows managed to do.