Television: Nidge is dead. And ‘Downton Abbey’ is on life support

Review: Whatever the future of RTÉ’s hit drama, we’ll sure miss Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s superbly nasty Nidge

Behind bars: Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt as Bates  and Anna in Downton Abbey

Behind bars: Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt as Bates and Anna in Downton Abbey

 

It has been recommissioned for a sixth series – and why wouldn’t it when the viewing figures are so huge? It’s as much a cultural phenomenon as a television drama, and it looks fabulous.

No, not Love/Hate (RTÉ One), which this week feels like a series finale – the show belongs to Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), and he’s dead. We’re talking Downtown Abbey (UTV and TV3), which also wraps up its fifth series on Sunday night.

Except for the glorious why-we-watch-it 1920s dresses – laugh at Downton’s hotchpotch approach to history all you like: it looks gorgeous – it is an unexpectedly gloomy episode, with lovely Anna in the clink, the unveiling of the war memorial, a tense wedding and the dead dog. Isis will presumably no longer wag her tail in the opening credits.

It has been a series full of random storylines – the bolshie teacher, the suitor for Cora – piling even more new characters into a cast list already long enough to fill a small village. And the key – quite daft – storylines have become so repetitious in their detail that whole episodes have gone by with nothing much new happening.

There’s cyborg Mary – just because she’s had a haircut doesn’t convince me she’s real – and her interchangeable suitors; Scotland Yard’s repeated visits to Mr and Mrs Bates to solve the murder of a footman in London (as if they’d be so tenacious); the still scheming Barrow the butler, although why he does all that sinister skulking is a mystery; and the palaver about Mrs Patmore’s dead nephew Archie.

And no offence to Maggie Smith’s Dowager Grantham in her lavender day dress, but isn’t the declaration from the intense Russian prince, with his scraggly Johnny Foreigner hair, that he wants to be her lover just a bit non-U – and a slightly alarming teaser for the Christmas special?

For the fifth series of the most successful drama ever on RTÉ, its writer, Stuart Carolan, has kept the plot simple: in the opening episode Nidge is told by everyone but the dead cat that he’s a marked man – and, sure enough, six TV hours later he dies in the finale. So no surprise there, although there are plenty of shocker scenes in a tense final episode, with the brutal murders of Siobhan (Charlie Murphy) and Janet (Mary Murray) and a scene we don’t need to see so much of: the rape of Fran in prison.

There had been early hints that this series of Love/Hate might offer more in the way of meaty subplots: there was Brían F O’Byrne’s garda and the idea that the cops are closing in; Scotty the mole – not the much-talked-about rat – who came and went without causing much of a ripple; and the intrigue-and-action potential of the drug deal that Nidge went to Spain to get the money for.

None of these diversions was fully developed, and the characters were underwritten. Instead, over the six episodes Love/Hate has lurched from brutal murder to brutal murder, with lots of driving around in between. From week to week it has been mostly about who is going to die next, a thin proposition for a gangland drama.

That said, the final episode features some standout two-hander scenes, with powerful scriptwriting and examples of the fine acting that has made Love/Hate so watchable.

There is a terrifically sparky and beautifully underplayed scene on the sofa between Aido (Mark Dunne) and Nadine (Lynn Rafferty). He’s cleaning the flat and she jumps to what, for her, is the only possible reason: that he’s killed her boyfriend and is getting rid of the evidence. There’s a wary encounter between Siobhan and Trish (Aoibhinn McGinnity, criminally underused), as well as a gritty, unhinged shouting match of recrimination and revenge between Siobhan and Nidge. In one scene both actors deliver their most intense performances of the five series.

If this is really the end for Love/Hate – Nidge has no obvious successor – then the episode will have answered early criticism that the drama glamorised Dublin gangland: there’s nothing glamorous about how these criminals end up.

It’s well over a year since we saw the handsome serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) escape to Scotland at the end of The Fall (RTÉ One, Sunday; BBC One, Thursday), the gripping, don’t-watch-it-alone thriller. It was an unsatisfactory ending. DS Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) should have caught him – everything led up to his capture – so his escape appeared more the result of a recommissioned second series than a logical conclusion to a superbly plotted story. I’d have been quite happy if Gibson had a brand new crime to solve.

The second-series opener begins 10 days after Spector’s escape, with the last murder under investigation and a witness struggling to remember what she saw. But he’s soon back in Belfast, and, as The Fall’s snappy new tag line has it, “it’s personal, not procedural”. All those bloody corpses in series one were undeniably gruesome, and seemed pretty personal, too.

The Fall is not a whodunnit – we knew from the start of the first series that Spector, the handsome grief counsellor, had a sideline in murder, and that was key to the heart-thumping tension. The police now have more of a clue about his identity, which sets in train a different dynamic: it’s catch me if you can between Spector and Gibson.

The challenges of policing in Belfast are also subtly alluded to – as a setting, it’s not presented as a blank canvas in the way, say, Birmingham or Manchester might be. Gibson returns to the scene of the most recent crime at night – would she really do that in real life, even with the distant protection of the police chief with the saddest eyes (John Lynch)? When she comes out of the house she is surrounded by a gang of men who tell her the police are not wanted in the neighbourhood – and that they take care of their own.

Anderson’s DS Gibson is a superbly realised character – similar in many ways to Claire Danes’s Carrie in Homeland (RTÉ Two, Tuesday) in that, unusually for a female TV lead, we’re not bought off with coy examples of their softer side, or given easy reasons to like them. Both women are unapologetically straight-talking, and both are strong, with chilly interpersonal skills, blinkered in their devotion to their careers (although Carrie’s willingness to drop a bomb on Saul this week, to view him as collateral damage, is a surprise). Both are prone to inappropriate relationships and neither gives a damn what anyone else thinks. Terrific.

Ones to Watch: Dear departed

Aoife Kelleher’s beautifully shot One Million Dubliners (RTÉ One, Thursday) is a homage to our national necropolis, Glasnevin Cemetery, final home to well over a million people. There are more Dublin residents below ground than above. It’s also a place full of myths, yarns and eccentricities, all told in vivid detail by the late tour guide Shane Mac Thomáis (left).

Maia Dunphy is back for a new run, with four more examples of What Women Want (RTÉ Two, Thursday). The first part focuses on food.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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