Lessons Love/Hate learned from US television

Get an anti-hero. Hire Aidan Gillen. Don’t be episodic. These are some of the tricks RTÉ’s drama picked up from across the water

Mon, Oct 7, 2013, 08:06

Love/Hate is as good as an American TV drama. This sentence is said often and with surprise. The surprise is that an Irish drama could be so good; 20 years ago, the surprise would have been that an American show could be.

Here’s the potted history of quality US telly: The rise of US cable stations such as HBO, Showtime and AMC in the last two decades has led to a television renaissance. With viewer subscriptions in their back-pocket, these networks no longer had to worry about pandering to fickle advertisers and casual viewers and could instead create complex, long-arc television drama shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. These were programmes made for DVD box-sets, internet analysis and binge watching, and before long even the mainstream US networks were regularly creating quality drama (CBS’s The Good Wife being a standout example).

Love/Hate might be the first Irish- accented drama to explicitly take its cues from these developments, but it won’t be the last. Here’s what the creators learned from American television.


Appoint a showrunner
In olden times, the writer was at the lowest rung of TV’s creative ladder, there to be towered over by snooty directors. Since then, television has become a writer’s medium. Writer/creator “showrunners” oversee television production from start to finish and keep every narrative and character detail straight. The best of these include Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads), David Chase (The Sopranos), Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black) and Mathew Weiner (Mad Men).

Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan is one of the first writers on an Irish drama to also have an executive production role. He’s a showrunner, a man with an overarching creative vision beyond ratings or taste, who keeps the story straight – or crooked, as artistically appropriate.
Create antiheroes
It’s the age of the television antihero – mob bosses such as Tony Soprano, philandering advertising executives such as Don Draper (Mad Men), meth dealers such as Walter White (Breaking Bad), and, if you’re a member of the American Republican party, evil Democrat presidents such as Josiah Bartlet (The West Wing). The rise of the anti-hero with whom we troublingly identify, is explored in a new book by Brett Martin, Difficult Men. As a TV trope it’s getting a bit tired. But Irish TV drama hasn’t really done the anti-hero before. Admittedly, Love/Hate doesn’t have one consistent personality at the heart of the action. The initial central character, Darren (Robert Sheehan), was more tragic hero than anti-hero, a man with good intentions brought down by fate. But with the more definitively sociopathic Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) at the core, we have a classic anti-hero.


Focus on crime
Just as comic books are obsessed with superheroes, TV drama’s go-to genre is the crime story. Some of the best US dramas have the US legal system as a backdrop (there are some noble exceptions – Mad Men, Friday Night Lights and Freaks and Geeks). Is there too much crime drama? Probably. But not with an Irish accent.


Include sex, violence and bad language
US cable TV allowed a tide of graphic sex, ultra-violence and intemperate language, all traditionally forbidden by the mainstream networks. The Wire’s first series included an entire scene in which the only word of dialogue is repeated iterations of the word “f***”. The Soprano gangsters had their business meetings in a strip club. A US critic invented the word “sexposition” to describe Game of Thrones’ habit of leavening the delivery of heavy plot points with naked breasts.

Love/Hate has plenty of ultraviolence, profanity (“nobody wants to f*** a fat rabbit”) and memorably eye-mauling scenes of Nidge having sex in a car (“dancing at the crossroads” has been replaced by “riding in a lay-by” – sorry, a Dev joke felt obligatory). It’s worth noting that RTÉ is not a US cable TV station without advertisers to worry about, so it’s quite brave of them to endorse such shenanigans.
Give your lead character an iconic look
Walter White’s pork-pie hat, goatee and sunglasses. Don Draper’s slicked hair and pressed suit. And now, Darren from Love/Hate’s manky blue hoodie. It should be in a glass case in the National Museum.


Kill off major characters
When David Chase killed off Big Pussy in the second series of The Sopranos, he started a trend. More recently, Sean Bean didn’t even get to the end of the first series of Game of Thrones before his head was on a pike. Love/Hate took this lesson so much to heart they killed Darren twice (they also killed off John Boy and Hughie). The first time around, death didn’t take and he was back sporting his blue hoodie in series two. After the hit at the end of the last series, however, he is surely dead. Isn’t he?


Hire Aidan Gillen for two series
He’s very talented, and, having appeared in The Wire and Game of Thrones, having him on Love/Hate must have been like owning a HBO-blessed talisman.


Expand minor characters
In the new wave of US dramas, everyone feels like they have a backstory and a life of their own. In Love/Hate, minor characters such as Elmo can grow from minor thugs to three-dimensional family men. Comedy lieutenants such as Nidge can become plausible mob bosses.


Make it about family
Since The Sopranos, much of the tension in quality drama has come from the gulf between work life and family life, whether it’s Don Draper seducing secretaries while Betty wallows in suburban purgatory or Walter White creating crystal meth to provide for his children. So it is with Love/Hate, where Nidge attends children’s birthday parties and weddings between drug deals and gangland hits. At home, thirtysomething professionals think: “He’s just like me.”
Sideline female characters
A problem with the American anti-hero drama is that female characters are often used as plot-generating accessories to more fleshed-out men-of-action. There are noble exceptions to this (Orange Is the New Black, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but Love/Hate sadly isn’t one of them.

Don’t be episodic
In the 1990s, ambitious long-form story arcs were already in evidence in network shows such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it took the subscription model, box sets and the internet to really free TV drama from the story-of-the-week format .

Since then there has been a plethora of nuanced stories that were designed to be taken whole, not in isolated chunks. If this revolution never happened, each episode of Love/Hate would involve Nidge and Darren driving from town to town in a van solving crimes, possibly breaking Fran out of hospital on the way, like Murdock in The A-Team (actually, that sounds brilliant).


Be a metaphor for wider society
The Sopranos is about the rot at the heart of the American Dream. Breaking Bad eulogises the collapsing middle class. The Wire laments decaying public infrastructure. The West Wing is a liberal fairy tale. Love/Hate can be read as a metaphor for the recession, with the gang members representing the predatory kleptocrats in high finance. Of course, everything in Ireland is a recessionary metaphor these days. I’m pretty sure Stuart Carolan and company are just trying to tell good stories.

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