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Patrick Freyne’s TV moments of 2020: I've replaced my college memories with Normal People

In a year when TV had a lot of heavy lifting to do, let's celebrate some small screen highlights

For a lot of us TV had to do a lot of heavy lifting to replace family, friends and outdoor activities. I initially feel obliged to add “this year” to the end of this sentence but I know what you lot are like. Still, in the Covid era TV did its job reasonably well and I’d like to celebrate the television moments of the year in an end of year “listicle”.

Normal People (RTÉ 1/BBC 1)

Like most of the country during the trauma of the first lockdown I successfully replaced my own memories of college with footage from Lenny Abrahamson’s excellent adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. I now easily recall the way that I, as a callow youth, would cleverly discuss books at fancy dinner parties or soulfully gaze at paintings in Italian galleries when I wasn’t, of course, being a tender and effective lover. I was also often moodily taciturn while wearing small shorts. I’m now recategorising my memoir, Disappointing Girls While Wearing an Army Surplus Parka And Talking Too Much, as a novel.

Home School Hub and Afterschool Hub (RTÉ 1)

By April we were all keen for detailed instruction from carefully-spoken politicians and public health officials, so I easily segued on to this excellent documentary series for intellectuals in which various speakers encouraged us to contemplate the universe, recite words slowly and do craft projects. Apparently children watched this too but I assume they were precocious child geniuses like Doogie Howser MD and Simon Harris. I am also a fan of the Bertrand Russell of this age, Martin Pine, the pine marten from Martin's Shed.

Raised by Wolves (Now TV)

In Ridley Scott's new sci-fi extravaganza (Sky Atlantic) two androids raise six children on a strange inhospitable planet light years from other humans. If ever there was a metaphor for pandemic parenting this is it. The androids "Mother" and "Father" home school the children who have names like "Campion" and "Tally" and they have an allotment and bake. "Father" tells terrible jokes. "Mother" explains their non-religious Educate Together philosophy, which is at odds with the theocratic nation they have left behind. From time to time people cough then die. It's quite relatable, really. Occasionally the android "Mother" gruesomely massacres thousands of people rather than have little Campion deal with larger class sizes or have to go to a religious school. Classic middle-class parenting, says you. We're giving "Mother" and "Father" parenting columns in The Irish Times from January.


The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

In the olden days, if you had gone to a television studio and said, “I would like to make a programme about a young woman who plays chess”, a television executive would have said: “That’s a fantastic idea. Here are my notes. Change ‘young woman’ to ‘aging man’, change ‘plays’ to ‘shoots’ and ‘chess’ to ‘baddies in the face’. And instead of calling it The Queen’s Gambit we’ll call it Magnum PI or, possibly, Bram Stoker’s Shooty Man.” The fact that Scott Frank’s hugely stylish and compelling Anya Taylor Joy-starring limited series is now one of Netflix’s biggest hits of the year is a very welcome and unexpected occurrence.

Barry (Sky Atlantic)

By the time I delved into Alec Berg and Bill Hader's story of a melancholy man who joins an acting class run by the Fonz (Henry Winkler), we were all missing having hobbies outside of the house. And so I very much enjoyed going along with Hader's eponymous "Barry" as he discovered the joys of self-expression and bonded with a new community of offbeat outsiders.

Oh, I forgot to mention, he’s also a contract killer. Much dramatic tension is derived from the fact that his time outside acting class involves killing people for money. I’m not sure why I forgot to say this upfront. I was probably distracted by the fact that attending a crowded acting class is, in these pandemic times, much like mass murder anyway.

Barry is a brilliant show that goes far beyond its obviously hilarious absurdities to delve into darker territory about what redemption looks like. It more or less skewers the comforting inanity that what matters in life is “who you are inside”, suggesting that “who you are inside” is irrelevant if you keep being an amoral contract killer on the outside. I’m sure at least one reader of the Irish Times needs to hear this.

Emily in Paris (Netflix)

The thing about Emily in Paris, a programme about an Emily in Paris, was that it bore as much resemblance to actual Paris as does the work of those new wave  auteurs Pepé Le Pew and René from ’Allo ’Allo! This was a good thing. It meant that you too could authentically recreate its Gallic ambience at home by taping pictures of the Eiffel Tower to every window, ordering smelly cheese from Dunnes, dressing like a sexy clown person, having inappropriate conversations with a French accent on work Zoom calls and being constantly amazed while wearing a beret. Are we not all, in a very real sense, Emily in Paris?

Daniel sa Bhaile (TG4)

This year a lot of television chat shows began, out of necessity, to resemble the Zoom calls we spent the rest of our time doing. I gave a pass for Daniel O’Donnell’s show, broadcast from his own kitchen where he sang, chatted to fellow country stars and took part in Zumba classes while his consort Majella brewed tea in the background. On reflection it may not have been a television programme. It’s conceivable that I was just Zooming with Daniel.

Tiger King (Netflix)

Tiger King was another breakout hit of the early lockdown and, without other humans to ground us, we rather weirdly mistook this story for a hilarious romp. It’s not a hilarious romp. I mean, it’s essentially the tale of a damaged man who abuses wild animals, casually disregards the welfare of his poverty-stricken employees and is eventually imprisoned for a conspiracy to murder a rival tiger person. The counter argument to this, of course, is “BUT HE HAS A MULLET” which, I’ll grant you, is a fair point. Even The Road would have been pretty funny if they all had mullets.

The US Presidential Election

The big question for us all in November was, "Is this American democracy's last season? Does it die here of a large orange lump or will it limp on for a few more years with a generic new character and a soft reboot?" Knowing how sensation-starved we were, the programme makers went all out to create a week-long extravaganza with quirky characters (who can forget Georgia and Pennsylvania?) and a nefarious Republican party who toyed gently with the idea of autocracy. Understandably, we all binged.

In Ireland, the breakout star was John King and his Magic Wall, CNN's white-haired mage doing the same sums over and over again with a large interactive map. We immediately granted him honorary citizenship because as a people we are both needy and narcissistic and insist that anyone who deigns to laugh at our jokes must join us, like the Borg. John King is, predictably, now in hiding trying avoid his weird ex, Ireland.

The Den (RTÉ 1)

The return of Ray, Dustin, Zig and Zag as a live family extravaganza has brought great healing to the nation (See also: The Late Late Toy Show). And yes, I know it was controversial, but I for one feel it's good that it eventually ended up replacing all news bulletins. Aren't we happier now? We are, yes.