Television: Donald Trump’s dream or American nightmare?

Review: ‘The Mad World of Donald Trump’, ‘Attenborough and the Great Dinosaur’, ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’

'President Trump". Two words that seemed laughable when the Donald declared his intention to seek the Republican Party nomination to run for the White House. It's not so funny now. The veteran Washington reporter Matt Frei, in his The Mad World of Donald Trump (Channel 4, Tuesday), at one rally remarks: "The last time I saw crowds as enthusiastic as this was in 2008 for Barack Obama."

The giddy title of the documentary doesn’t augur well (or even pretend to be impartial), but it turns out to be a sober and effortlessly damning examination of the Trump phenomenon, of how he went from “a bit of a joke, a punchline with dodgy hair”, to a poll topper.

Frei interviews supporters who see Trump as a saviour of the American dream, the champion of the blue-collar white American against the threat of immigrants – his attitude to Muslims and his talk of building a wall to keep out Mexicans go down well – and of big business intent on moving jobs overseas. The irony that he’s a billionaire in the big-business club seems lost on them. He has no coherent economic, social or political policy, but they love the tub-thumping pronouncements about kicking “Isis ass”.

It’s easy to sneer, especially as Frei’s interviewees tend to come across as rednecks straight out of central casting. One thing is clear, though: in an increasingly divided United States, there are swathes of people – mostly the poor and the shrinking middle class – who feel left behind. Trump appeals to them.

In a brief but insightful biography we learn that Trump was born into a very wealthy family and by the age of 11 had been shipped off to military boarding school because his behaviour was so out of hand. One of his biographers, Michael D’Antonio, suggests that this explains his immature approach to women, that he’s forever stuck at 11 in his emotional development.

Frei suggests that women – half the electorate, after all – might be Trump's undoing. "Why would any woman vote for him?" the former BBC broadcaster Selina Scott asks rhetorically. Scott's documentary on Trump in 1995 so angered him that he sent her 13 "extremely abusive" letters. Clips of his campaign pronouncements suggest that, at the very least, the boorish Trump might be working from a well-thumbed copy of the misogynist's handbook.

Frei finds solid ammunition to counterbalance all that rally cheering and poll successes in the divorce papers from one of Trump’s three ex-wives. In an affidavit, Ivana Trump accused her husband of raping her. She later explained that’s not what she meant, but the brutality suggested in the wording of the allegation is chilling.

And Republicans are spooked. A veteran party strategist calls Trump “a stark raving disaster for the Republican Party . . . This isn’t a reality show. These displays of hate are dangerous.”

David Attenborough is nearly 90 years old, and the discovery of a huge new dinosaur is astounding. But is it ageist to remark that what I find just as remarkable is the sight of the great TV naturalist standing at a dig in Argentina in the blazing heat, explaining, in his uniquely engaging way, the background to the story?

Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur (BBC Two, Sunday), made over two years, introduces the titanosaur, which was the length of four double decker buses and is thought to be the largest animal that has ever walked Earth.

The story begins with a farmer spotting the tip of a gigantic fossil in the Argentinean desert. Soon palaeontologists unearthed 220 massive bones. The CGI, animation, 3D scanning and other fancy visuals that go with this type of programme all give a terrific sense of the titanic nature of the creature and the painstaking work of the experts.

The most absorbing moments are when Attenborough quizzes Dr Diego Pol, the lead scientist on the excavation, and the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod about the titanosaur's life and prehistoric times. This is a subtly different Attenborough film: he's not the expert this time but the one asking the questions – and delighting in the learning. The 37m-long model skeleton unveiled at the end, like the best Lego kit ever, is pretty impressive as well.

As celeb travelogues are just about my least-favourite TV format I dip in and out of The Real Marigold Hotel (BBC Two, Tuesday), in which seven senior citizens, "former performers", arrive in Jaipur, in India, to live together in a big house to re-enact the story of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It's a bit like a fully clothed Big Brother, except with arthritic knees, funny foreign food and sunshine.

Slightly disturbingly – because I rarely know anyone in I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! – I recognise several of the celebs, who include Wayne Sleep, Rosemary Shrager, Patti Boulaye, Jan Leeming and one of Graham Norton's most hilarious guests, Miriam Margolyes.

As is usual in this genre, they all seem to have a much better time on their work jolly than anyone could possibly have watching them (while they give silent thanks to their agents for bagging them such a jammy gig). I can’t see how they’ll get three episodes out of it.

After that, what I think is going to be yet another celeb travel programme, Patrick Kielty's Mulholland Drive (BBC One, Tuesday), isn't.

The Northern Irish comedian drives around Los Angeles in a vintage sports car; he lives there anyway, so it can't be that big a deal for him. But this intriguing documentary turns out to be vivid history lesson that reveals the little-known story of the famous LA road, which is named after Belfast-born, Dublin-educated William Mulholland.

More than 100 years ago Mulholland masterminded the Los Angeles aqueduct, which still supplies a third of the water for the city. LA gets just 38cm of rain a year, so it’s not an exaggeration to say that Mulholland’s engineering skills enabled the city to grow to what it is today. Kielty explores how the self-taught water engineer became a feted celebrity – that is, until one of his dams broke, flooding a huge area and creating the biggest man-made disaster in the history of California.

It’s a fascinating yarn. It feels like a personal project for Kielty, and the story is well told.

tvreview@irishtimes.com