Tommy Tiernan, Marian, Succession... 10 top talking points from TV in 2021

We probably spent far too much time sitting in over the past 12 months, but at least the small screen provided plenty entertainment
Tommy Tiernan, Marian, Succession... 10 top talking points from TV in 2021

TV talking points. 

1. Marian Finucane 

The late Marian Finucane and her husband John Clarke.
The late Marian Finucane and her husband John Clarke.

A brilliant documentary at the start of the year paid tribute to one of Ireland's great broadcasters. While it did provide insight into Finucane's talents, and her trail-blazing rise in what was a male-dominated industry, the contribution of her husband John Clarke turned the show into much more than that. What an articulate description of the power of love that drove this couple through the decades, and an equally poignant description of the depths of grief that followed her death in early 2020.

2. Late Late Show 

 While the Toy Show probably wasn't a classic by recent high standards, the Late Late does deserve a place on the list for at least two other episodes. First up, in the midst of a pandemic where statistics have been king, it can all feel strangely void of personal stories – blame our enforced isolation, desire for privacy, the age profile of the deceased, etc. Ryan Tubridy's reading of a handfull of names at the start of several shows, filling in a bit of personal history along the way, was a simple but very moving way of making it all feel real and genuinely tragic. In November, the show also gave us a momentous interview with Vicky Phelan. Affable, open, inspirational... Insert your superlative of choice about a woman who impresses on so many levels.

3. Squid Game

 Who would have guessed that a Korean show would be the biggest Netflix hit of the year? Whether you saw the dubbed version, or with subtitles, it really was a show that had to be watched if you wanted to join in those virtual water-cooler moments. The show's ultimate mark of success was that it even unleashed a frisson of moral panic. 'Oh my goodness – they're hammering each other in the schoolyards!' It remains to be seen if Squid Game has revived the tracksuit as an item of fashion.

4. Line of Duty's big reveal 

Could it be the gaffer? Or Patricia Carmichael ? Or maybe even Steve. Who was H? The eventual revelation of the name of the corrupt SIO who'd been working for the OCG was met with the addition of a new anagram to the show... FFS! After several seasons of build-up and nudging us down certain paths, the major baddie we'd all been speculating about turned out to be DS Ian Buckells. Most viewers had little or no investment in this minor character and the best cop series of recent times went out on fairly underwhelming note. By then, even Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) had lost some of his charm with his quaint Irish phrases feeling like they were uttered as social-media-era soundbites rather than an integral part of the script. We barely shrugged our shoulders as Ted floated away down the Lagan in a bubble with the wee donkey.

5. Sophie Toscan du Plantier 

Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud as a child with his mother Sophie Toscan du Plantier, (Picture courtesy Netflix, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork)
Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud as a child with his mother Sophie Toscan du Plantier, (Picture courtesy Netflix, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork)

The true crime genre often treads a fine line between voyeurism and insight, not least when dealing with a case as close to home as Sophie Toscan du Plantier. We had two major documentaries on the murder of the French woman in West Cork in 1996, with Netflix and Sky (with Jim Sheridan) generating huge interest, and unleashing all sorts of theories from flocks of amateur sleuths. Looking at the case purely in TV terms, it has so much material to build a show around – even a suspect who's willing to invite the cameras into his home. Ms du Plantier's family were hands-on with the Netflix series in particular, and reminded us all that this isn't just some fascinating 'case', but an awful tragedy that they still think about every day. “I need justice,” Ms du Plantier's son  Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud said, while recalling how he was just 15 when his mother was killed.

 6. Mare of Easttown

 Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.
 Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.

 

Despite the presence of Kate Winslet in the cast, this superb American drama had a bit of a slow-burn growth on Sky Atlantic. Presumably, a lot of people who missed it first time around have added it to their Christmas watch-lists. The plot revolves around Winslet's titular character, a troubled policewoman helping with a murder investigation in her hometown. We do get the tensions and revelations that such a show demands, but the main pleasure comes from the brilliantly-written characters, with their addictions, faltering relationships, and workplace issues. It's the other side of the Atlantic, but most of them feel refreshingly real and relatable.  Mare of Easttown also marked another step in the career revival of 70-year-old Jean Smart.

7. Tommy, Tolu and Felispeaks 

Tommy Tiernan continued to inject life into the chatshow format, eking out interesting exchanges with an eclectic mix of guests. The standout encounter was with singer Tolu Makay and poet Felispeaks a pair of friends who fizzed with fun and energy as they lit up our TV screens and flew the flag for the benefits of diversity.

8. It's A Sin 

It's a Sin. 
It's a Sin. 

 Russell T Davies wondered if anyone would want to watch a TV series about the Aids crisis in London in the 1980s. As it turned out, he created one of the hits of the year, and will be reaping the awards at the UK ceremonies over the next few weeks. Pop singer Olly Alexander emerged a breakout star of a series that not only showed the heartbreak and tragedy of the crisis, but also didn't shy away from highlighting the hedonistic fun of the era. London offered relative anonymity and a thriving scene that drew people from all over, including many from Ireland. Unfortunately, we saw how the unlucky among them were treated as pariahs as they suffered terrible lonely deaths.

9. Vital revivals 

 Revisiting old shows is never a good idea, is it? Well, both Sex And The City and Friends would make a strong case for the defence. And Just Like That may not have hit the heights of the original, but Sarah Jessica Parker and co have still been providing decent viewing with the older versions of their much-loved characters. Meanwhile, the stars from the Central Perk Cafe wisely decided not to try a new series, but their reunion show was suprisingly moving.

10. Success for Succession

 Season three was a long time coming, but it more than lived up to expectations with what was probably the sharpest writing on our screens in 2021. By the time the epic final episode dropped in December, the plot hadn't moved that far forward, but we really didn't care as it was so enjoyable to watch them all going round in circles. Logan Roy has become one of TV's great anti-heroes. In many ways, he's the new Tony Soprano as you cheer him on in his battle to emerge victorious from the cesspit. The good news is that there's even room for improvement for season four: sort out bafflingly weak character, Connor Roy (Alan Ruck); and let's see more of Logan's semi-estranged wife Marcia Roy (Hiam Abbass).

Honourable mentions

White Lotus
White Lotus

  • The Beatles, Get Back: Peter Jackson's masterful restoration of hours of footage from the Fab Four has created a long-overdue Beatles revival.
  • Bo Burnham, Inside: What happens when you lock such a talented man in room for a year with a pile of production kit.
  • This Way Up: Another good year for Kildare woman Aisling Bea, who gave us plenty laughs as she addressed hugely topical mental health issues.
  • The White Lotus: Kind of a cousin of Succession, this satire set in a Hawaiian resort also had a magnificent soundtrack and the most unforgettable (no matter how hard you try ) poo scene ever seen on TV. 
  • Ted Lasso: In another era, the upbeat American might not have been such a success, but he proved a perfect antidote for the grimness of Covid.
  • Cocooned: Whatever about the nation's youth, Ken Wardrop’s documentary reminded us of what some of the elderly have been missing out on during the pandemic. And what brilliant and resilient characters so many of them are.

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