Paula review: a TV show as promiscuous as its protagonist

Conor McPherson’s shape-shifting drama bears the consequences of Paula’s own double life

The official trailer for the three-part BBC drama, made in association with RTÉ, 'Paula'. Video: BBC

 

Late in the second part of Paula (RTÉ One, Tues, 9.35pm) a three-part BBC drama made in association with RTÉ, our protagonist confessed to living a double life. By that point Denise Gough’s sullen heroine needed to provide some sort of explanation, because her personal decisions – never immensely far-sighted – had become pretty farcical.

To briefly recap: a straitlaced chemistry teacher, Paula had ended a rash affair with one married colleague. She then rashly slept with an icily handsome handyman, James (Tom Hughes) who went on to blackmail and kill her ex, before burning out her drifter brother. In her distress, Paula rashly slept with the schlubby-but-determined detective investigating her case. Now, I’m not one to judge, but Paula’s erotic life seems gloriously silly.

Paula, at least, is aware of her patterns. In childhood, she confesses to detective Mac (Owen McDonnell), she had a near-death experience while playing rough, captive games with her brother, slipping out of consciousness and into a parallel existence for what seemed like years. Only rash sex ever seems to turn her to this curious Narnia, she admits. “It gets me into trouble, Mac,” she says, suggesting similar sexual consequences to those of a slasher movie.

If Paula seems like a strange sort of revenant, drifting morosely between this world and another, one fling and the next, she is assisted by a double-dealing drama specifically set in Dublin and stubbornly filmed in Belfast. Even mildly attentive viewers will find her bilocation unsettling, or worry that for all her other travails – a rat infestation in her basement, a polyamorous stalker, an incinerated brother – the commute alone must be killing her.

Even after its conclusion, it is hard to decide exactly what kind of a show the writer Conor McPherson has concocted for his television debut. It moved at first like a psychological thriller, preferring unsettling personal interactions and claustrophobic spaces, but it nudges routinely at paranormal fantasy, where James is haunted by the ghostly apparition of a young girl and his own sibling traumas.

It may be easy to mock the programme’s style, in which no one ever switches on a lightbulb or draws a curtain, skulking around in street fluorescence and shadows, but that, you suspect, is how director Alex Holmes wants Paula to be watched: as a horror show in a creaking house, or a creepy yarn told around a campfire. Like Gough’s otherworldly detachment, or Hughes’s annoying whisper, it wishes to arrest reasonable quibbles and draw you into the half-light of fright.

In that case, it could do with fewer distractions, such as the sudden leaps in register where a widow launches into a physical scrap in a kitchen, or Paula unleashes a wild spray of gunfire in a bathroom, violent excesses that feel as though the show itself is getting restless. Nagging more consistently at your attention is the feeling that all this – a city dark as a sepulchre, a dishy psychopath and a sexually confident female protagonist – had been done before and better by The Fall

In the end, Paula contains a more gothic fantasy, a revenge story made messy with weird plot elaborations and hurried back stories, laced through with sly allusions to the suffocations of family. That it tumbles through innumerable implausibilities and loose ends on the way to an obligatory twist ending seems telling.

“It’s like I know the whole world is there, but I’m not interested in any of it,” Paula once confided. Like her, the show is distracted and curiously promiscuous, diving between grim realism and a spooky dream, logic and impossibility, Belfast and Dublin. That gets it into trouble, Mac.

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