Television: ‘Amber’ alert: high expectations plus low tension equals mediocre drama
After committing four nights to RTÉ’s patchy missing-girl story, viewers were still left wanting
Something missing: David Murray and Eva Birthistle as Amber’s parents
A lot rested on young Amber’s shoulders. A huge sense of expectation for a start: RTÉ’s “big drama” output is sparse, so when a new series comes along, all eyes are on it and the station gave Amber (RTÉ One, Sunday-Wednesday) a justifiably large publicity push.
Dramas come and go on ITV, BBC and Channel 4 without klieg lights shone on their every minute. The mediocre ones, such as Amber, simply get lost and forgotten. On RTÉ, though, there’s just not enough output for that to happen. Amber was a crime series, and that’s the TV genre with any number of recent gripping, smart examples, from Broadchurch (now on TV3 on Wednesdays) to The Bridge (BBC Four, Saturdays), that continue to layer intriguing, clever elements on top of the standard police procedural.
Amber was the story of a missing daughter and the impact of her disappearance on her parents (Eva Birthistle and David Murray). And how were viewers – loyal for four consecutive nights, which was a big ask – rewarded at the end? A flashback to the day the teen went missing, showing her heading up a lonely country road followed by a white van. Really? It was White Van Man – the tabloid favourite in every missing-child story – wot did it. Or maybe not. Who knows? I don’t think the writers did. Apart from one convincing red herring, the creepy prisoner in episode two, there weren’t really any viable options. The repeated shots of the same man walking his dog was as good as it got when it came to a tantalising clue.
Episode one promised much, with a strong set-up of a middle-class mother and father in contemporary Dublin dealing with the tensions of a recent separation when their artistically gifted 14-year-old daughter (beautifully underplayed by the newcomer Lauryn Canny) goes missing.
The second episode played with time and perspective, with the story told mostly from the perspective of the mother’s friend, who was a journalist. (She looked for an advance from her editor – at which point, in the real world, every freelancer will have shrieked, advances being as mythical as the Yeti.)
In episodes three and four, despite the time shifts and sparse new details, the fragile sense of suspense dissipated and the improbabilities piled up, especially the sequence involving Charlie, a Chinese man who handled stolen phones. Amber’s dad owned a security firm, and there were shades of the film Taken, in which the daughter of Liam “I will find you” Neeson’s character is abducted and trafficked. Amber’s dad, concluding that she had been trafficked, went on a lengthy, ultimately dead-end detour into the porn industry. But Amber’s dad was rubbish at even basic security: how could an undocumented person get access to his office?
Amber looked good, with strong production values, and there were interesting time shifts and perspective choices, but, crucially, they delivered none of the clever plot twists such devices afford and viewers reasonably expect. None of the characters was fleshed out enough, so it was hard to care, and the acting was uneven, with some actors pitching as though they were on stage; others, notably a naturalistic Birthistle, were more TV-friendly. The weak plot was neither able to go forward with the suspense and intelligence a crime drama needs nor able to come to a stop with a satisfying conclusion.