Lots of laughs on the couch, but missing Fingers makes the blood boil

Life couch: Gary Cooke and Barbara Bergin not only wrote the script but also play all six characters in TV3's properly funny new comedy

Life couch: Gary Cooke and Barbara Bergin not only wrote the script but also play all six characters in TV3's properly funny new comedy

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

New comedy is rich with dark comic potential and the acting is spot on – especially from Barbara Bergin

New Irish comedy. Now there are three words to make your blood run cold. But On the Couch (TV3, Tuesday) is funny – and not in a good-for-an-Irish-comedy sort of way but properly funny.

It’s a simple one-camera, single-location set-up – I’m guessing the budget was two washers and a jam jar – and Barbara Bergin and Gary Cooke (from Après Match) not only wrote the script but also play all six characters.

The couch is in a therapist’s office, and the action intercuts the sessions of three couples in crisis. There’s newly posh but dead-rough Dubliners Dudley and Sylvia – he’s “in security, the solutions business” – who are trying to move on from his affair with a young one; flinty workaholics Graeme – in “financial services and a humanitarian” – and Moya, who are trying to prove they are good parents after their 14-year-old was taken into care after a drunken assault (“they say the other boy is brain damaged; well then, he won’t remember what happened, will he?”); and anorak-wearing Brendan, who can’t come to terms with his meek wife Carmel’s weight loss. “Change only causes people anxiety and stress. I don’t know why people have to change,” he harrumphs, not missing the chance to undermine her achievement.

Each story is rich with blackly comic potential. The acting is spot on, especially from Bergin, who is a terrific character actor, and the writing is subtle enough that by the end of the first episode the dynamics between the couples have shifted – and look set to shift again next week. You mightn’t recognise everything in all the characters, but they seem very real all the same.

Pervasive creepiness

The first trio of the Black Mirror dramas, standalone stories with an undertow of suspense, like a cross between the Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, had a dark satirical bite.

This new series, written by Charlie Brooker, looks to be different if the first drama, Be Right Back (Channel 4, Monday) is anything to go by. The satire is gone; this is almost sweet while still being creepy and unsettling. We meet loved-up couple Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) and Martha (Hayley Atwell) as they move to the country.

Subtly, the technologies they use reveal that the drama is set in the future: the TV in the car reports on a medical discovery to regrow flesh, Martha programmes the car for “Drive Safe”, and Ash’s phone is wafer thin.

This imaginably nearish future – Twitter still exists, and cars and clothes are the same – and naturalistic acting and direction add to the pervasive creepiness. The following day Ash is killed in a car crash, and soon Martha discovers she’s pregnant.

Mired in grief, she agrees to sign up for a new service that allows communication with the dead. In this future, software can trawl though all the social media people posted in their lifetimes and mimic them after death.

First Martha is happy to communicate via email with this reimagined Ash, but she soon opts for the delux service, a clone who arrives in a box and must be rehydrated in the bath.

He emerges smooth faced and slightly better looking than she remembers, because, as he points out, we tend to keep only good photos of ourselves, and he has been remade from all the images stored on their computer.

But the clone isn’t like the real Ash. He has no imagination, spontaneity or authenticity – the sum of our social-media parts maybe.

Soon Martha grows tired of him. She ends up putting him in the attic, like last year’s Christmas decorations or a piece of outdated technology.

But the end scene, with its time jump of seven years, felt tacked on, and while there was enough momentum in the story for an hour, that extra 30 minutes almost killed it.

The Fingleton files

Richard Curran’s documentary Inside Irish Nationwide (RTÉ One, Monday) told a complex story in clear detail, explaining how a building society with tiny profits, where files were kept in biscuit tins and loans were modest, grew in just a few years to become an international property player with stratospheric profits. And then it collapsed, leaving the taxpayer to pick up a €5.4 billion bill.

Accountancy tends not to provide the most visual of stories, so there were filler shots of shiny new office buildings, empty boardrooms, and journalists – including Curran’s coinvestigator Tom Lyons – commenting from eerily empty newsrooms.

We learned a lot, though. The Central Bank of Ireland, for example, was alerted as far back as 2000 that all was not right, but it did nothing. Michael Fingleton ran the bank as if it were a personal fiefdom. He didn’t even have a computer in his office, which pretty much said it all – shades of Minister for Finance Bertie Ahern having no bank account – and he considered he had an arrangement with the government about his €1 million bonus.

Amid the avalanche of information – all those billions get a bit blinding after a while – there were frustrating gaps. Tantalising titbits were thrown out, including that Fingleton cosied up by way of no-hassle loans to journalists and politicians. There were no names, though.

And the style of filming meant that former board member Con Power told his story unchallenged, and, while his insight was fascinating, Fingleton told the board only what suited him, and there was never any paperwork at board meetings. The anecdotes got a bit folksy after a while, such as how Fingleton called him “Connie” and urged him not to worry.

You really wanted Curran to intervene and ask Power why he didn’t blow the whistle or why he stayed on the board for six years under those blatantly irregular conditions. A parent on a school board operating in the same way would have resigned after the first term.

Fingleton hung over the programme like a noxious smell – Curran showed that Irish Nationwide was all about him, but he was physically absent. Archive footage showed his doleful face down through the years but nothing new, no doorstepping and little up-to-date information, such as where or how he lives now.

This left the viewer – blood already boiling by the injustice of picking up his tab – with the suspicion that he too was watching Inside Nationwide, largely untouched by everything that has gone before – laughing all the way from the bank.

Ones to Watch Keeping track of the global hacktivists

* Storyville: How Hackers Changed the World (BBC Four, Wednesday) tracks the rise of Anonymous, the mask-wearing hactivists (right). Members, some showing their identities, others not, explain how, f or them, hacking became a tool of civil disobedience and how they pick their targets.

* Life on the Inside (RTÉ One, Monday) is the first half of a two-part fly on-the-wall series, starting with a year in the life of Wheatfield Prison. Next week, the cameras are at Shelton Abbey low-security jail.

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