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Smother: is it an edge-of-seat whodunnit or an over-the-top soap opera?

Television: The third and final season of the RTÉ' drama has a great cast and performances. Just don’t attempt to keep up with the cork-screwing plot

Dervla Kirwan in Smother, series three. Photograph: Martin Maguire/RTÉ/BBC Studios/Treasure 2022

RTÉ has been trying to make a hit thriller since the heyday of Scandi noir, when smashes such as The Bridge and The Killing were stabbing the zeitgeist in the back. That is now more than a decade ago – and still the broadcaster struggles to crack the formula.

That has been the case regardless of whether the milieu is docklands noir (Kin) or Narcos-in-Connemara (North Sea Connection). The obvious exception is Love/Hate – a glorified video game set in a cartoonish caricature of Dublin gangland (a kind of Grand Theft Anto).

Which brings us to Smother (RTÉ One, 9.30pm), a dense, sometimes incomprehensible tale of familial skulduggery set against the Co Clare Atlantic coastline.

Returning for a third and final run, Smother still has a few things going for it. The cast is perhaps the strongest of any recent RTÉ drama. It includes Dervla Kirwan as Val, the big cheese in the Ahern family, and Justine Mitchell as vengeful alcoholic-turned-jail bird Elaine.


As a bonus, this season welcomes Fionnula Flanagan as Val’s stern yet dotty mother. Plus there’s an ongoing role for Carrie Crowley – though three years in I still have no idea who Mairéad is or how she intersects with the other characters. In Smother, it often feels as if the script is throwing characters at us with an air of mild desperation.

The series opener also suffers from the absence of Seána Kerslake as Val’s unstable daughter Grace. But the biggest problem remains the fact that Smother cannot decide whether to be an edge-of-seat whodunnit or over-the-top soap opera.

As the action begins, Val and family are still struggling with the aftermath of the violent death of her unpleasant husband Denis. Elaine, the killer, is back from prison, and eager for revenge against Val.

She shows up unannounced at Val’s wedding to Paul (a smooth customer with a penchant for gaslighting). Meanwhile, slowpoke Garda Joe (Éanna Hardwicke) is getting over Grace and ends up in the arms of Val’s daughter Anna. A wedding quickie in Lahinch is rather a switch-up for actress Gemma-Leah Devereux, who bumped up against Oscar glory playing Liza Minnelli opposite Renée Zellweger’s Judy Garland in Judy.

While for all its other failings, Smother is never dull; however, it does not quite click. In its bones, it’s more Coronation Street than The Killing. Characters are constantly saying and doing the sort of stuff that people only do in weekday soaps. Every glance is filled with daggers; protagonists always have a bombshell up their sleeve. Nobody takes a moment to calm down.

Then there is the dialogue. “I love you Paul Madigan – I think you might have saved me life,” says Val on her wedding day. “Ah now, steady on,” replies Paul. It’s not True Detective, is it?

For all that, the performances make Smother bearable. Just don’t attempt to keep up with the cork-screwing plot. Instead, luxuriate in the sheer daftness of it all. Approached as an overheated family melodrama with the odd murder chucked in and it all makes so much more sense.