Obituary (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 10.15pm) isn’t perfect – there are moments it struggles to be adequate – but it is nonetheless hugely encouraging to encounter a scripted series from RTÉ that isn’t a sub Love/Hate gangster folly or a glorified soap up to its neck in small town misery. There is a small town in Obituary. However, its problem is not misery but murder, courtesy of a local obituary writer determined to keep business ticking over.
It’s ghoulishly good fun, even when the dark comedy isn’t as whipsmart as it needs to be. The script by Ray Lawlor lands like a cross between Netflix’s Wednesday and Normal People. It’s Sally Rooney gone emo, built around a powerful central performance by Siobhán Cullen, as Elvira Clancy, a Gen Z journalist obsessed with death and with a career on life support.
Cullen is perfectly pallid as Elvira, a creepy young woman marooned in the no-hope town of Kilraven (a grimdark mash-up of Ballyshannon and Bundoran in Donegal). She has landed a gig at the local newspaper writing death notices. Alas, print media being what it is, her editor (David Ganly) forces her to go freelance. He agrees to pay her €200 per obituary – about five times what you’d actually receive for such a gig.
So far, so lucrative. But to keep earning a living and support herself and her alcoholic dad, Elvira needs a fresh supply of bodies. You can see where Obituary is going. Soon Elvira is quietly helping to keep the Kilraven body count ticking over.
It’s a delicious premise, so it’s a shame the script isn’t funnier. Obituary is a dark comedy that often forgets the laughs. Still, Cullen sells even the stodgiest lines, and Bad Sisters Michael Smiley is heartbreaking as her tragic dad. Also impressive is Danielle Galligan as Elvira’s best friend, Mallory, who is carrying on with local businessman. Plus, there’s a fascinating mystery threaded through in the form of a cocky new crime reporter (Ronan Raftery) exploring a dark secret from Kilraven’s past.
RTÉ is often criticised for a failure of imagination (aside from its bookkeeping, where it gives Hollywood a run for its money). With Obituary, it has tried something different, and while it doesn’t always succeed, at least looks beyond the traditional cliches of home-grown drama. And given the Irish obsession with death and small-town gossip, you can only applaud the killer premise.