This is Ireland review: Only satire can save us now, but it needs to be sharper than this
After an uncertain debut, Des Bishop’s new show seems to be picking cynicism over outrage. But an intervention from Blindboy Boatclub suggests there’s cause for hope
You would think, as 2016 draws to a pitiful close, that the only people who could salvage anything from this annus horribilis would be satirists. For political comedians, at least, there has been no shortage of material: a fragile minority government at home; the fiasco of Brexit next door; or what seemed like the resistible rise of Trump should provide substance for trenchant comment and wicked laughter. But instead, political satire has seemed rattled by such events, even worrying about its own role as giggling bystander. To look at the Daily Show now, Comedy Central’s influential topical comedy, is to see satire ridden with disbelief and guilt, trudging through a long dark late night of the soul.
Then again, political satire has worried about its purpose for at least 2,000 years, when Horace defined the job description as “to comment with a smile” rather than continue the vicious satire of ancient Rome. And the revered Peter Cook knew the limits of instructive humour, modelling his Establishment Club on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second World War”. At a time when there has rarely been as much topical comedy available, pullulating on television and online, to little apparent political effect, what is satire to do?
Des Bishop’s new programme This is Ireland (Mondays, RTE Two, 10pm), wades uncertainly into this climate, unsure of itself and still less decided about its purpose. Recorded in front of an audience, it is anchored by a besuited Bishop from behind a curved desk, who monologues between distractingly low-quality news clips, handovers to roving comedy correspondents or interviews with straight guests. It is essentially a copycat the Daily Show rationed out on a weekly basis. And why not? The no-frills formula allows it to be filmed the previous day, encouraging material that is fresh and responsive. On the basis of the tentative first episode, however, lead writers Bishop and James Cotter are not yet comfortable with rapid reaction.
“The Brits are leaving Europe, America’s Bill Cullen is going to be president of the US and after 111 years we finally beat the All Blacks,” Bishop offers, by way of opener, before winding his way through Trump’s election promise to “drain the swamp” by providing a more colloquial version, with its own hashtag: #drainthebog.
Sadly, it did not trend, but that imperative, chanted by Bishop’s audience, suggested two possible directions for the show: either to inform and outrage, or to market a familiar brand of facetious cynicism: Ah, sure they’re all corrupt anyway. It seems to be sliding towards the latter. So we get the resurgence of Fianna Fáil (“like that bad ex-boyfriend you just can’t delete from your phone”); the water charges palaver (“There’s a million of you who paid your water charges, suckers”); and a Game of Thrones reference that is hardly mint-fresh: “The Irish government is the Lannisters, except their motto is the Irish people always pay the Lannisters’ debts.”
Still, there are signs of imagination. The most promising sequence comes from Blindboy Boatclub, a brilliantly slanted meditation on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement (of all things), not just because it quickly gets to the substance of the deal and its potentially ruinous consequences, through a gradually distorting portrait of Tom Hanks, but because it is a rare example of satire undermining, rather than just confirming, its audience’s prejudices. Donald Trump opposes the deal. “But isn’t he supposed to be the enemy?” wonders Blindboy.
That isn’t the overall tone of the show, sadly. It gives over a considerable portion of its running time to rail against the gluten-free industry. And it allows Andrew Maxwell to shirk out of a piece on civil service allowances with an apathetic bit that feels like a shot in the foot for the whole show. “If you dig into Ireland, there’s really important stuff,” Maxwell ventures, before meandering into a joke about the Facebook bullying helpline. You know, really important stuff.
This Is Ireland has a four-week commitment, which sounds like a trial run, and there are reasons to be hopeful for its development. Bishop is smart, fast, informed and compassionate; he just needs a position to shoot from. Written by an exclusively male consortium, it could really do with broadening its perspective. And finally, it needs to set its sights on much bigger, fresher game than gluten. A palsy interview with independent TD Stephen Donnelly on vulture funds lays the problem bare, veering between jockish ad-libs and barroom cynicism. But Bishop, nobody’s fool, could be better tested with a much more adversarial role.
“Is it super awkward now?” he asks Donnelly about his defection from the Social Democrats, before suddenly announcing the arrival of his erstwhile colleague Róisín Shortall. It’s a gag, of course – so far the only thing the show finds less interesting than combat are female contributors. But Bishop, like Cook, already seems to be aware of the limits of his satire and the need to go further. “That would have been great television,” he says. Wouldn’t it?