The other day, this column presented you with a list of nifty British TV that arrived here in 2021. Well, today the focus is on a show from Ireland – where they also make TV, but do things differently.
The language is English but distinctly different, the landscape is singular, and the dynamics are rooted in ancient traditions of storytelling – or, sometimes, in the peculiar stew of greed and rage that often simmers in rural Ireland. If you know modern Irish theatre, you know the territory. It’s a place where your closest relatives might be your most dangerous enemies.
Smother (streaming on CBC Gem) comes out of all that. The six-part crime drama seethes with grotesque rivalries among a sprawling family living in a small remote area, while the panorama of the countryside (it was filmed around Lahinch, in County Clare) is breathtaking. It starts with a murder. (Of course it does.) A male figure topples off a cliff. Did he merely fall? (Come on, now.)
The dead fella is Denis Ahern (Stuart Graham), a patriarch straight out of the Irish theatrical tradition – rich from dubious business practices and with a history of extramarital affairs. His fall from a clifftop onto a rough beach on the wild Atlantic coast, we soon learn, was preceded by a big and boozy party at his very large house. The occasion was the 50th birthday of his wife Val (Dervla Kirwan) – and Denis, being the kind of man he is, uses the occasion to announce that they are divorcing and Val is hooked up with younger man Carl (Borgen’s Thomas Levin), who is also at the party. There are dark looks and muttered threats in the kind of Irish vernacular you cannot print in a newspaper.
No sooner is Denis dead than more family secrets begin tumbling out. The daughters in this blended family, Jenny (Niamh Walsh), Anna (Gemma Leah Devereux) and Grace (Seána Kerslake) are shocked, suspicious and keeping their own histories barely concealed. The men in their lives are either toxic or milquetoast – and then there are the women Denis had affairs with, plus the people he ripped off in his business skulduggery.
When it’s suggested that Denis didn’t merely fall – that there was an altercation – events pivot around Grace, the daughter who is known to be mentally unstable and sometimes doesn’t take her medication. Although the assumed star of Smother is Kirwan, given her leading roles in many series going back to Ballykissangel, the series really belongs to Kerslake as Grace. She inhabits Grace as a full-blown force of tempestuous nature – as enchanting, dangerous and stormy as the raw, rugged setting. It’s a thing to behold with awe, this performance. By the way, Kerslake is also the star of the startling Gen-Z comedy/drama series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope (streaming on Netflix), which got a puzzled but rave review from me a while back.
As Smother unfolds, you might feel the plotting is derivative in this whodunnit set in a wild coastal place where people harbour dark secrets and hatreds. But it has notes floating through it that are original and different from the British crime-drama format. The cast is excellent and grasp the language and tone with fervour, knowing this story has the flavour of rural Ireland (it was written by Kate O’Riordan, who grew up in West Cork) and has the motifs and parlance of the place. Coveting land and property is important, the drinking is heavy and there are grudges and resentments almost as old as the stony soil.
This isn’t a crime drama set in (and drawing upon the dynamics of) chic contemporary Dublin. It is set among people that Dubliners call “culchies” – those from outside the metropolis. It can be a derogatory term, but the central tension in the Irish culture is always between urban and rural. Reviewing Smother in the Irish Examiner, Pat Fitzpatrick had this advice for Irish TV: “Shoot more stuff outside Dublin – culchies make for better drama than lawyer types living in a Georgian doer-upper in Rathmines.”
True that, plus Smother is a good thriller. Beware the Aherns.
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