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The Dry is about drinking, and staying sober while putting up with family, ex-lovers, the past and the present with all its rituals and events where everybody drinksPeter Rowen/Courtesy of CBC Gem

George Bernard Shaw said this of his native Ireland: “Your wits can’t thicken in that soft moist air, on those white springy roads, in those misty rushes and brown bogs, on those hillsides of granite rocks and magenta heather.”

Right, well, that’s a nice poetic passage and it goes on for a bit longer, but the issue in Ireland isn’t just the soft, moist air. It’s the tolerance of drinking; the copious social and personal drinking that leads to what they call, “the craic,” the fun and revelry. If the craic is good, everything’s grand, until it isn’t, for some people.

The Dry (streams CBC Gem) is about drinking, and staying sober while putting up with family, ex-lovers, the past and the present with all its rituals and events where everybody drinks. The series arrives here with outstanding reviews. “Masterful,” wrote reviewer Chitra Ramaswamy in The Guardian, and “sharply observed” and “superb” wrote Joe Clay in The Times. Yes, it’s very, very good; wryly comical, sometimes dark and often bitingly funny. From the same team that adapted Normal People, it has that show’s alertness to dysfunctional family awkwardness, with dashes of the absurdity found in Derry Girls.

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It’s about Shiv (Roisin Gallagher) and we meet her as she arrives back in Dublin from London following the death of her grandmother. At the airport she waits in vain for a family member to collect her. And, while having coffee, she sees a nearby man consume a pint of Guinness, and then start on a second pint. “Are you okay?” she asks the man. His astonished reply is, “What?” To which she observes, “You’re drinking at nine in the morning!” His conclusion is that she’s “a religious nut” and it’s an outrage that a man can’t enjoy a pint at the airport without being bothered by such people.

Shiv is 35 years old, six months sober and hanging on. At her parents’ home, there’s a wake for her granny. The corpse is in the living room and there’s a lot of fuss and acid remarks being thrown around. Her dad, Tom (Ciaran Hinds, who is wonderful), is wondering if he can have a drink at the wake, or would that upset Shiv? His wife, Bernie (Pom Boyd), shrugs and says, “We can put up with her for one weekend, can’t we? Just don’t get pissed.”

It’s just that Shiv is actually broke, out of work and planning to move back and live with her parents. That means putting up with her no-nonsense sister, Caroline (Siobhan Cullen), a doctor who heaps scorn on any belief that isn’t scientific, and her brother, Ant (Adam John Richardson). Ant is gay, lives in the garden shed and obliges his parents to put up with an endless stream of lovers who come and go.

Siobhán Cullen plays Caroline in The Dry.Peter Rowen/Courtesy of CBC Gem

Everyone has some secrets here but there is no melodrama about that. The sheer vitality of the series – eight half-hour episodes, two available now – is rooted in the talk and glancing social exchanges. Everyone talks using expletives and everyone exists in the Irish world of winks and nods, the truth about things existing plainly but not necessarily mentioned. The humour is what makes it gel as absurd but relatable comedy-drama. One gloriously jolting scene has Shiv encounter her old teacher from school at a posh recovery meeting in the Dublin suburbs. The retired teacher has a scathing assessment of Shiv and you don’t know whether to laugh or have sympathy for these two characters.

Written by playwright Nancy Harris, The Dry is both deliberately unsettling and highly entertaining. It’s one of those series that exists thanks to streaming services – it was originally created for BritBox – being an unconventional, prickly take on sobriety and its difficulties in a culture that won’t necessarily cheer you on toward staying sober. Like Single Drunk Female (streams Disney+), it has a humorous approach that doesn’t deny the despair in alcoholism but doesn’t preach, either. It’s breezily cold-hearted about everyone surrounding the central character, but it feels authentically funny and wise.

With the singing, the drinking, the jokes and the touches of self-loathing, this unusual little series isn’t for the faint-hearted. But there’s sobering poetry in its soul, without being Shavian and long-winded about it.

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