Television: These wolves in teens’ clothing will have you howling with laughter

Review: ‘Raised By Wolves’, ‘ Pope Francis: The Sinner’, ‘American Crime’, ‘Republic of Telly’

Raised By Wolves: Caroline Moran, Alexa Davies as Aretha, Helen Monks as Germaine and Caitlin Moran

Raised By Wolves: Caroline Moran, Alexa Davies as Aretha, Helen Monks as Germaine and Caitlin Moran

 

Working-class teenage girls get a bad rap on British TV. In reality shows and dramas they tend to be portrayed as thick and hard faced, with designer trackies and a vocabulary as limited as their horizons. Matt Lucas’s Little Britain creation Vicky Pollard has a lot to answer for (although he’s getting his comeuppance in his new series, the dire, surely career-torpedoing Pompidou, on BBC Two this weekend).

But the teenage girls living in the council house in Wolverhampton in Raised By Wolves (Channel 4, Monday) are a bracing breath of fresh air. If you saw the 2013 pilot you’ll know what to expect; this semi-autobiographical sitcom about growing up in the 1980s is written by Caitlin Moran, the journalist and How to Be a Woman author, and Caroline Moran, her comedy-writing sister.

There’s Germaine/Caitlin (played by Helen Monks), a stroppy 16-year-old sex-fixated extrovert; Aretha/Caz (Alexa Davies), her sarcastic, world-weary sidekick sister; and a gaggle of smaller children, “the babbies”, in a chaotic bookish household headed by Della (Rebekah Staton), their no-nonsense mum.

Now commissioned for a series (under its Irish director, Ian FitzGibbon) and set in the present day, the first episode is mostly about Yoko getting her period, necessitating a family outing to “the aisle of shame” at Boots. “I don’t think I want to be a woman, Mum,” says Yoko as Germaine – she really is annoying – gleefully piles on the bloody (and hilarious) horror stories. “Nobody does, love, but the men are too chicken shit to handle it, so here we are,” says Mum.

The girls love their movies and literary references, and inevitably, in their nonconformist clothes – Germaine channels Helena Bonham Carter – they’re bullied. “There are CCTV cameras everywhere, you know,” warns Aretha as a yob tries to steal her scarf. “George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four was entirely prescient.”

They talk like this all the time. The only out-of-sync element punctuating the knowing dialogue and girl-power capers is a cheesy subplot involving Grandad, in his fluffy robe, getting prepped to seduce Granny over a pot of beef bourguignon that seems to have wandered in from a 1980s sitcom.

In just about every interview with Caitlin Moran, Wolverhampton – her birthplace and the setting for Raised By Wolves – is referred to in a way that suggests it’s a British shorthand for cultural sinkhole. But Della, who is fond of a pithy life lecture when she’s not blithely ignoring the kids, explains, “We’re not northern twats , we’re not southern twats, we’re midlands twats.” If you were ever a teenage girl – or, better still, have one – this is refreshingly honest and occasionally laugh-out-loud stuff.

I tune into Pope Francis: The Sinner (RTÉ One, Monday), a Would You Believe profile of the pontiff on the second anniversary of his papacy, feeling dutiful but not enthusiastic. I expect a profile that is the TV equivalent of those framed papal photographs of yore – essential kitchen-wall art in many Irish homes – with a red bulb flickering at its base. Not so. This is an absorbing and clear- eyed look at the rise of the Argentinean Jesuit to the top job in the Vatican, with all the strategising, power and pomp that comes with it.

For those whose knowledge of Jorgé Mario Bergoglio begins with the white smoke in Rome and is informed only by his apparent easygoing personal style, it is fascinating to learn of his past, particularly how divisive a figure he was among Jesuits in Argentina in the 1970s during that country’s turbulent Dirty War.

As head of the order there he rejected liberation theology and was critical and unsupportive of priests who worked out in the communities. Instead he adopted a more cloistered, doctrinal approach to religious formation. Some of those who knew him at that time speak critically of the then Fr Bergoglio’s hardline approach to leadership and still suspect that he had links with the military junta.

His supporters point to his ability to build and unify his congregation and note the change in his management style over time, from authoritarian to a more collaborative, open approach, with the Gospel at the root of his teaching and thinking.

As we see magnificently shot images of St Peter’s in Rome, with hundreds of cardinals and bishops in full regalia, the talk turns to the problems facing Pope Francis, notably how to integrate lay people and particularly women into church roles. The former president Mary McAleese doesn’t mince her words talking about “the residual element of misogyny” deeply embedded in the church and the pope’s “blind side” when it comes to women. “I don’t think he gets it,” she says, referring to him as one of many of his generation. “And why would they? They’re all male clerical celebrates, used to women kissing their hems and handing them their meals and polishing their tables.”

American Crime (RTÉ2, Sunday) is a terrific pick-up by RTÉ. The simple premise of the series, which airs just a week after it’s shown in the US, is that a young man has been killed and his wife assaulted during a break-in. It tells the aftermath from multiple viewpoints as the more complicated truth slowly emerges. His estranged parents, Russ (Timothy Hutton) and Barb (a magnetic Felicity Huffman), are unsympathetic characters: he flounders with guilt and anger while she is hell bent on retribution and blame. “The illegals” are her first suspects; racial tension is a powerful, raw undercurrent in American Crime.

Exploring modern family structures and social breakdown through a criminal event is not a new TV device, but it is terrifically executed here by the creator of the series, John Ridley, who wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave. Just when you think you’ve a handle on what happened, the superb storytelling in the relentlessly downbeat drama takes you in a different direction. With little music, and characters who seem without a slick of make-up or lighting, the filming style lends an air of exhausted reality to every scene. It is a gritty antidote to the typically glossy US drama series on offer.

Republic of Telly (RTÉ2, Monday), the “topical” comedy that takes potshots at television, is back for a new series. One item is introduced – without a hint of irony – by Kevin McGahern, the presenter, as “Paddy McKenna showing once again how behind the times RTÉ really is”. It’s about the station’s New Year’s Eve coverage, when McKenna’s countdown is out of sync with the clock. New Year’s Eve? It’s March. It’s a big ask to expect a show to be funny (see Pompidou), but topical? That should be the easy bit. Otherwise what’s the point? tvreview@irishtimes.com

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