TV and films like to drop us into new worlds. To ensure our brains don’t discombobulate when this happens, we arrive into the story at the same time as another newbie; the audience surrogate. The surrogate helps ease us into a world, since they need to know the ins and outs as much as we do. We learn as they learn. Domhnall Gleeson’s character in Frank, Mike Ross in Suits and Harry Potter in that wizarding series are all surrogates who help us understand the strange settings they find themselves in.
RTÉ’s new drama Charlie, drops us into the world of Irish politics circa 1979. No matter how much Reeling in the Years you’ve seen, it’s still an alien world. There is a string of men in suits with questionable hair for us to keep track of, and little way of knowing who is who. It’s dizzying meeting all these men, but we’ve no-one to share that dizziness with; Haughey (Aiden Gillen) is clearly at home.
This could be done on purpose of course, giving us one less way to sympathise with the lead. Another method is having Haughey be our guide to the world, similar to House of Cards’ Frank Underwood which has worked so well for that show in its various iterations.
Writer Colm Teevan should be given credit for not dumbing the story down, yet it’s clear there’s still quite a few dumb dumbs out there (myself included). I got by with an IMDb cheat sheet but that’s not how a show should be enjoyed. If the info isn’t there in the text, or in this case the screen, then it’s failed on that count.
However, when you do realise which man is which, Charlie turns out to be an entertaining romp through the grubby dealings of Ireland’s very own Dark Lord. There are the usual staples, such as the brown envelopes, but where it’s at its best is in the barrage of one liners.
Haughey remarks about Margaret Thatcher how “Rumour has it she’s a woman”, while his consigliere, P.J. Mara (Tom Vaughan Lawlor), sagely advises “As Sun Tzu says in the good book, you should crush the fuckers dead.” It’s a hoot watching Gillen and Vaughan-Lawlor deliver these lines and it’s clear they’re enjoying themselves too.
Gillen has made a career out of playing crafty politicians (The Wire, Game of Thrones) so it’s no surprise he turns in a strong performance here. He keeps a stiffness in his shoulders that the real Haughey has in archive footage and his hair is suitably awful, just like the real thing. Vaughan Lawlor, meanwhile, has less to do as Mara but still gets juicy lines as the brains behind the operation.
The supporting cast of hard to discern men are less memorable, although that should change over the next two episodes. Peter O’Meara (the dentist from Love/Hate) makes the most impact as Brian Lenihan Sr, mainly because he plays him as a big eejit. Or perhaps he is doing his best Dáithí Ó Sé impression.
Where this opening segment of Charlie falls down is it’s desire to cram in as many incidents as it can, so we get Haughey’s dealings with Margaret Thatcher, the H Block hunger strikers, Stardust plus all the backroom stuff going on within Fianna Fáil at the time. It’s all too much to take on without a degree in history and the end result suffers, sadly.
Having said that, it does clip by at a brisk pace. This is helped by a score that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Christopher Nolan picture, while Kenneth Glenaan’s direction is solid if not showy.
The set design is impressive, too, with those various backrooms looking very much of the characters’ time. Less impressive is the use of onscreen text at the beginning and end; neither add to proceedings and feel out of play with what’s very much a scripted drama.
It’s still early days for Charlie, especially as we’re not even at the halfway point yet. But with a strong central performance from Gillen and capable supporters around him the next two episodes should be worth waiting for. And hopefully by the time it’s over we’ll know exactly who is who.