What makes a classic TV show?

It’s 10 years since Friends wrapped, an event watched by over 52 million viewers, making it the fifth biggest television finale in US history.

What makes a classic TV show?

JERRY SEINFELD turns 60 on April 29 — but because his TV show remains so iconic, he will be forever 30-something in audience imaginations. He once famously described his sitcom as “a show about nothing”.

When Seinfeld ended in 1998, it had become one of the most successful comedy series in history, so much so that NBC offered the star $5m an episode to continue. “We thought it would be a show just for people like us,” Seinfeld told Larry King. “We thought it would just be for people we knew who wanted a certain type of humour. We thought maybe we’ll find a little niche, survive two or three years and that’s it. Our ambition was never more than that.”

Friends, another TV phenomenon about six pals also sharing life and love in Manhattan, marks the tenth anniversary of its final episode in May — an event watched by over 52m viewers, making it the fifth biggest television finale in US history. David Crane and Marta Kauffman, creators of the series, attributed its success to that fact that “it was all about fun, plain and simple. The stories came from our own lives in New York, growing up, the freedom of moving in to your own place, living in the city and being young and alive”.

In recent years, Ireland has produced its own share of iconic shows, especially in drama where a renaissance driven by cutting edge writing combined with arresting storylines have generated a powerful social impact and huge viewing figures. Dramas like Love/Hate, The Fall, Pure Mule and, most recently, Amber, have become the launch pad for many acting and creative careers portraying a new, and at times unpleasant, Ireland very different to Ballykissangel or Glenroe.

Amber, the most recent RTÉ drama to pull in a major audience, starred Eva Birthistle and David Murray as Dublin parents frantically searching for their disappeared 14-year-old daughter. Each of the four episodes focused on the perspective of one individual connected to the case as Amber’s family, then friends, then complete strangers become drawn into the quest to find out what happened. “The writer and the script has primacy, especially in modern television,” says series creator Rob Cawley. “We generate the ideas, give birth to the characters, build entire worlds, and generally see the story in our imaginations first, before any other creative gets involved. The writer is also increasingly an entrepreneur, creating not only a piece of art and entertainment, but also an industry from a single idea.”

The storyline of Amber had close personal connections for Cawley, as his wife Grainne’s brother disappeared in 2009, and has not yet been found. “I often get ideas from books and other media, but I also get them from my own life. I work in documentary too, so I often meet characters which would be unbelievable if I just made them up. I like to write about worlds I’m not familiar with, but I stick to emotions which I have experience of.”

It is important that characters behave with authenticity and drive the story as opposed to them behaving a certain way because the story wants them to. “I like to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange,” says Cawley.

Crime will always be popular because the stakes are high, Cawley believes. “It’s life versus death, good versus evil. There’s inherent conflict and intense pressure on the characters. All of these things are crucial to drama. It’s also a safe way to enter a dangerous world,” he says. “We tend to watch television from the comfort of our couches, so it’s easier to watch a murder, a robbery, safe in the knowledge that we can return to our normal lives when the credits roll.”

While also set in Dublin, the locations of Love/Hate could not be more different to the picturesque tranquillity of Amber’s south Co Dublin. A gangland milieu of dilapidated housing estates, strip clubs, back street bordellos and after-hours drinking dens, it led writer Stuart Carolan into a world unfamiliar to most of the population. “I wanted to understand the background of criminals, so I looked up the Facebook and Bebo RIP pages of dead gangland members.”

He found there a world not entirely different to that one most of us inhabit: “Despite what they had done or how they had died, their families were like anybody’s and I wanted to capture some of that. I also wanted to capture something of modern life, shopping centres, gyms, creches, being constantly on the move and on the phone. The key thing was to be true to the story I wanted to tell,” he adds.

RTÉ commissioning editor of drama, Jane Gogan, credits the honesty of the writing as a central foundation in the show’s success. “The thing with Love/Hate is its originality, I think it is truthful and there is a fantastic range of characters. It has that depth and awareness of the place and the time that we’re in, and that resonates very strongly with audiences. The series has clearly made a big connection with a large part of the audience,” she says.

“When Stuart first came in to RTÉ, it was clear this was a very well researched, strongly authored drama that have a good potential connection to the audience. Most importantly, it was connected to a truth. We know that’s what the audience looks for.” The next series of Love/Hate is currently in production, and will screen on RTÉ towards the end of the year.

The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, focused on a series of women’s killings in Northern Ireland and the arrival of Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson to find the serial killer. The series has been re-commissioned for a second season.

“Most women who are murdered are killed by someone known to them — a boyfriend or a husband,” says writer Allan Cubbit. “On average two women a week are killed in the UK by a violent partner or ex-partner, this constitutes nearly 40% of all female homicides.”

Cubbit admits to being fascinated by serial killers, a sentiment shared by huge numbers of the public given the success of TV series like Dexter and films like The Silence of the Lambs. “Why would anyone stalk and kill one human after another? It seems so aberrant, so senseless, so the idea of identifying the killer from the start gave me the opportunity to explore that psychology.”

As one of RTÉ’s earliest dramas, The Riordans, which ran from 1965 to 1979, offered Irish viewers a viable alternative to the US and UK programming that dominated the schedules back in those one-channel days. Benjy, Batty, Minnie and Tom became our personal window on the world right down the road. “Because I was the only scriptwriter, The Riordans became my chance to create a dynasty in my own image — an opportunity offered to very few people,” said creator Wesley Burrowes.

“As someone who came originally from the North and spent most of my life in Dublin, I needed to be sure that the research was genuine, so I moved to Kilkenny and lived there for two years in the early days of the series. I had absolutely no idea what dairy farming was, I had no idea which end of the cow milk came from,” he admitted.

The people around Kells became the canvas he worked on. “Many of the yarns and tales that I was told by the local farmers down there went on to become part of the show. If The Riordans was said to be unique, it was because so much of it was based on solid reality and research.”

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