‘Back for a second series’ are the magic words in Irish television in 2016

‘Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope’ has won fans among younger viewers, but will it return for more?

In Can't Cope, Won't Cope, the new comedy drama made for RTÉ by Deadpan Pictures, Danielle (Nika McGuigan) sums up her friendship with Aisling (Seána Kerslake) by recalling how, in freshers' week, "we woke up in a pool of vomit and we didn't know if it was hers or mine".

It won't please everybody, and indeed that's the point. Can't Cope, Won't Cope is a fairly rare thing: a show that proves that RTÉ isn't ignoring younger viewers, and may even cater directly for them. To its appreciative female audience in particular, it is not just funny, it is recognisable. Their lives are being reflected on screen in the form of scripted entertainment – for once, like, as Aisling might say.

But when the six-part series is finished, what then? Where does this 22 minutes of weekly audience goodwill lead?

Before Can't Cope, Won't Cope began, I asked an RTÉ television executive a question I often ask whenever a new drama or comedy is announced – is it returnable?



Returnable does not mean returning. No broadcasting executive promises to bring something back for a second series before the first one has aired. Returnable, in this case, just means Aisling and Danielle don't do a Thelma and Louise at the end of the sixth episode and that writer Stefanie Preissner is available to write more. The answer was, yes, Can't Cope, Won't Cope had that potential.

As for whether it will actually return, I am hopeful, but I have learned not to try and predict these things.

The overnight audience ratings have hovered either side of 100,000 mark in a competitive 10pm Monday slot. And while a decade ago these numbers would have led to its quiet cancellation, the broadcasting environment has changed since then. RTÉ2 now resides in a much more crowded landscape, one in which the way younger viewers consume television has shifted away from linear channels and towards an array of on-demand options.

This can work to the advantage of some shows, giving them a longer life. Viewers are often resistant to watching new comedies. They’re ready to groan and cringe by the time the opening credits have finished rolling. And if one isn’t to their taste, they can react as if maniacal commissioning executives have mockingly sacrificed their first born to the false gods of television.

If a new show garners good word of mouth, however, catch-up options come into their own, and momentum builds. The history of television comedy is stuffed with examples of “classics” that found their audience after their initial runs, as well as more recent examples of comedies prematurely axed.

Can't Cope, Won't Cope, which unsurprisingly does well on catch-up, straddles comedy and drama in an on-trend manner (see also HBO's Girls, the BBC's Fleabag and Channel 4's Not Safe for Work), but it was commissioned out of the patch of RTÉ2 responsible for comedy, overseen by Eddie Doyle, rather than RTÉ's drama unit, run by Jane Gogan.


The squeeze on revenues at RTÉ has curtailed the output of both in recent years. On occasion, the axe has fallen on programmes that could have run for longer had more cash been available. Others came to a natural end or were designed as one-offs, and others still can be chalked up as false starts. The bared cupboard put even more pressure on the new commissions to work.

One recent example of a comedy that has panned out relatively well for RTÉ2, as opposed to merely being panned, is the Marmite-like 1980s nostalgia comedy Bridget & Eamon. A second series is being brought to air this autumn with unusual haste, following a decent initial reception on RTÉ2 in February and its eyebrow-raising sale to UKTV.

On the drama side, last January's big offering, Rebellion, will eventually return as Resistance, with its path back to the screen assisted by the fact it ticks a centenary box and is part-financed by international sources.

But what about contemporary drama? Blurbed as an exploration of "modern love, relationships and life in Ireland", the forthcoming legal-themed Striking Out (originally bestowed with the more billboard-friendly title Cheaters) has the look of a show that RTÉ would dearly love to run for more than just its first four-part run.

Once he gets his foot in the door at TV3 Group, meanwhile, one of the challenges for former RTÉ2 controller Bill Malone, TV3's incoming director of programmes, will be to amass a slate of returning scripted shows to complement Red Rock, which has been recommissioned for a third year.

The more episodes a programme has, the easier it is to export overseas. But international sales are hardly the only reason why it makes sense to bring shows back. Audiences don’t like being bounced around too much. They want some consistency from one year to the next. And in 2016, there is surely a risk that younger viewers who switch off might not switch back on.