Television: A life-affirming exchange beats the dark networking of misogyny

Gay Byrne’s ‘Meaning of Life’ inspires while ‘Blurred Lines’ explores disturbing trends in social media

Openness: Majella O’Donnell (left) with Gay Byrne

Openness: Majella O’Donnell (left) with Gay Byrne


Gay Byrne isn’t the star of his shows. He doesn’t flatter his guests or want to be their friend. He doesn’t have a needy look that begs guests to like him or think he’s funny. Maybe this is the secret of his long career as our top interviewer.

His style is most obvious in The Meaning of Life With Gay Byrne (RTÉ One, Sunday), his interview series, which is in its ninth year in the station’s Sunday-night God slot. This season’s first interviewee, Majella O’Donnell, opens up. She talks about the break-up of her first marriage (her husband slept with someone else the night before their nuptials), her severe depression (she once called social services because she wasn’t coping with her children) and her breast-cancer diagnosis.

Byrne doesn’t make soothing noises, or tell her how desperate that must have been for her and isn’t she marvellous for coming through it all. He doesn’t even start by telling her how fabulous she looks (and she does), surely a reflex in the situation. He simply says that when she shaved her head on The Late Late Show in September she raised €600,000 for the Irish Cancer Society. Then he dives right in, remarking that, as she is only a month after major surgery, many others in her position would want to hide away.

It’s a more productive opener than a platitude about her appearance because it starts them down a thoughtful road about her beliefs and faith, death, depression (worse than cancer, in her experience) and suicide. And if that sounds miserable, it isn’t. O’Donnell is one of those life-affirming people with a direct way of addressing questions and an engaging openness that suits this low-key format. (The show was filmed in her house.)

Byrne keeps his reactions to a minimum – he doesn’t do his trademark lemon-sucking, pursed-lips thing – but under his direct gaze there’s a real sense of O’Donnell opening up.

Soon into her relationship with Daniel O’Donnell, the crooner broke it off. After delivering the blow he asked if she was devastated. (She says it in her Thurles accent, but Daniel is so familiar that you hear it in his.) She wasn’t. She told him she had been devastated when her husband left her high and dry with two small children, but a boyfriend giving her the heave? No. They reunited and married soon after.

O’Donnell talks of finally going to a doctor after completing an online checklist that suggested that, yes, she was seriously depressed. So that’s one positive the internet delivers, though it’s hard to find many others in Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes (BBC Two, Thursday).

Misogyny isn’t new, says Kirsty Wark, its presenter, but social media facilitates it in a new, disturbing way, and popular culture is saturated with sexualised imagery of women, whether it’s in easily accessed porn, video games or pop videos (Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video being just one example).

Rape jokes are now so common that one teen talks about hearing at least three in school each day. The boundary of what is socially acceptable has been pushed out to a disturbing place – that’s if anyone knows where the boundary is. The video game Grand Theft Auto V, sales of which reached $1 billion in its first three days, features a sequence where gamers – overwhelmingly young men – can make their characters have sex with a prostitute. An earlier version of the game allowed the characters to beat them up and steal their money back.

Wark follows three months of live, mostly anonymous online reaction to guests on the BBC discussion programme Question Time. The responses to women panellists are routinely personal, graphically sexual and savage. “I’ve decided to face the music,” says the historian Prof Mary Beard, who has been on the receiving end of astonishingly vile abuse, “but why would any woman really bother to do this? It’s very bad for women’s participation in the public sphere.” Germaine Greer talks of social media being “this terrible grab bag of loathing of women” while Rod Liddle, the controversial columnist, suggests that really women need to “man up” and get on with it.

Blurred Lines lays it all out in a highly condensed documentary – it needs more time, as it’s an enormous subject – with Wark persuasively arguing that the vicious misogyny in the air could have far-reaching consequences.

The subtitle of the new 24 (Sky One, Wednesday) is Live Another Day – a bit James Bond, isn’t it? It’s old school, like the first words of the series from the hard man Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland): “You know who I am. Trigger the alarm and I’ll blow your head off.” This line comes after 44 plot-saturated, action-packed minutes.

24, which ran for eight series until 2010, was a groundbreaking TV series: a high-concept mix of political thriller and action movie. And it had enough knowing current-affairs references to make viewers think that they were smart just watching that clock count down to when Bauer, the ultimate one-man counter-terrorist operation, saved the day/president/free world, and got absolutely no thanks for it. By the time the series was pulled it had lost much of its tension. All I remember is Bauer doing a lot of shouting and running around.

In this new series (the first two episodes are shown together) Bauer is a fugitive, having lived off the grid for four years, as has his sidekick tech expert, Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub). We don’t know exactly what he has been doing, although Chloe has spent her time as a sort of Edward Snowden, leaking military secrets. She has also apparently been watching reruns of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, because she’s now a monosyllabic, tattooed geek-goth.

So the Wikileaks reference is new, as is the time frame – 12 hours instead of 24 – and the London location. This, though, is an anywhere gritty urban landscape, not a “wotcha, mate” Big Ben homage. The plot is full of references to the US’s use of drones, “extreme interrogation” techniques, Afghanistan, international terrorists, and a compromised US president, and Bauer runs through it all, jumping off high walls (you worry for his knees), beating people up and evading the CIA. It’s the whole political-thriller Action Man soup.

This new series of 24 has the same feel as before, which is to say it feels a little old now that we’ve seen the shows it inspired, particularly 24’s lovechild Homeland (created by many of the 24 team), but it’s fast and furious, with enough to hook you in. It just doesn’t feel as special as before.

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