What happens when you’ve got a captive audience? Liveline happens. Joe Duffy’s hotline melted after RTÉ screened the first two episodes of the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People.
And it wasn’t the blatantly thrown handpass in the first gah scene they were complaining about.
No, not for the first time, it was fornication in the firing line. The absolute disgrace made worse since it featured a lad who had bagged the winning goal for his Sligo school, presumably in the Aonghus Murphy Memorial Cup.
Yes, there was other action to consider in the opening episodes, directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
In the main, the sporting drama matched the sure touch of the dialogue, with former Kildare U21 player Paul Mescal, as lead Connell, bringing his skills to the party.
And Abrahamson has already confirmed on Twitter that the rather leaden keeping for Connell’s winner was down to the goalie being told to stop bloody saving it, after he pulled off a worldy on the first take.
But Rooney and Abrahamson may just have combined for a more significant breakthrough. Has Normal People kicked off the rehabilitation of the TV jock?
Not that the early signs were good.
In fact, Connell ticks most boxes for the archetypal ‘jerk jock’, notably the entitlement and brass neck to sneak round to a girl’s house for a post-match warm-down, while enquiring if she’d mind not telling anyone at school so as not to make a show of him.
In getting away with that one, and failing to defend her when she’s taking dog’s abuse from his posse of acolytes, Connell maintains the proud traditions of the jock trope.
If he was a yank, he’d be a quarterback called Kyle or Tyler.
He’s Luke, the water polo captain in The O.C., who was a bit of a gowl. He’s the QB from Smallville, who tried to crucify Clark Kent.
While Marianne is the outsider persecuted by the mean girls and frat boys. And sport is back in the dock, accused of conferring fake popularity on those who least deserve it.
Most narratives would leave it there.
It’s only in the dramas where sport is at the heart of things — Friday Night Lights, One Tree Hill — that we learn the jock is really a complicated, sensitive soul, who’s not as thick as he looks, who loves his mama, and just needs to be understood.
But Rooney has shown some sympathy for the magnetism of sport.
In the book, even if Connell was a soccer player, there is appreciation for the transcendent power of a late winner, and the unity it can, at least temporarily, forge.
“They were cheering together, they had seen something magical which dissolved the ordinary social relations between them.”
And gradually we come to understand that Connell is a smart lad just learning to think for himself, a journey embarked upon by Emilio Estevez all those years ago in The Breakfast Club.
But is the jock entitled to this redemption? Is he ready?
What role does sport play in him acting the bollocks? Is it the pack mentality? Does the likelihood he’ll make the county minors make Connell who he is?
Timmy Creed delved into this area in his play about hurling, Spliced.
“It gave me an identity,” Creed told the Guardian last year, of his time as a hurler. “But that identity shapes the way you are with men, with women, with how you see the world. A whole other side to you gets missed.
“You are the chosen ones of the area and you can behave how you want. In school, we were given special treatment because we were the stars. You could see how other guys were like, ‘Why does he not have to do his homework?’
“We were being educated, within this group, that this was how you behaved. Nobody taught us otherwise. So if someone is talking about a woman in a derogatory way and you’re the person who calls them out, it would have been, ‘Who are you all of a sudden, undermining the way we’ve been?’ The behaviour comes from a conditioning that the boy won’t even be aware of.”
They didn’t seem too concerned about any of that, on Liveline — with what we have come to know as toxic masculinity.
But Paul Mescal got into it this week on Jarlath Regan’s podcast An Irishman Abroad.
First, as an Irishman living in London, Mescal pointed out that Brian Murphy, Kildare’s U21 manager when he played, had got wind he was in lockdown abroad by himself and phoned to make sure he was okay. A man he hadn’t spoken to in three years.
“An incredible testament to the bonds and relationships you cultivate when you’re in the trenches with other people in sport.”
Mescal described Connell as someone “stuck in the role other people have written for him”.
But he does believe the dressing room is a very different place than it might have been 10 years ago.
“I find it difficult to relate when people talk about toxic masculinity in sport. It wasn’t my experience.”
He describes his inter-county colleagues as gentlemen he’d go back to in a heartbeat, if acting allowed.
“I was able to turn to them and say I’m going to drama school and for it to be a laugh for a second but then them saying that’s great.”
All the same, there’s nothing in Rooney’s screenplay he’d write different.
“I wouldn’t believe it if he stood up and said lads, you’re way out of order. I’ve never seen it take place. It would be way too Disney.
“It doesn’t make his behaviour okay, it makes it recognisable.”
Some work-ons then, as the jock’s journey continues.