I’m going to have to go against the tide of popular opinion and say that I think Prosperity, a four-part drama that’s currently running on RTÃ‰ 2, is some of the best Irish TV I’ve seen in ages. It observes four separate underprivileged Dubliners on a single day in a quiet yet affecting way, following them as they wander through the streets of the city.
The script is pretty understated – virtually nothing happens in the way of plot in the first episode, and most of the dialogue is monosyllabic chat – and I can understand how some people immediately dislike it. Made by director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Mark Oâ€™Halloran, the duo that produced Adam & Paul, it’s subject matter is similar but it lacks the overt comedy of that film. Despite the suggestion of a strong social message in the title, there’s no morality lesson or proposed solution to the “dark side of the Celtic Tiger” situation so beloved of Sunday newspaper columnists. It starts, drifts along for a while, and stops.
So what’s to like?
First of all, it’s beautifully made. From the Sopranos-style opening credits that have been transplanted to the generic ringroads of Dublin to the slow, deliberate pacing and editing, the whole thing hangs together well and creates a mood, even if that is one of boredom and disconnectedness.
The characters are delicately drawn, not meant to be animated movie roles but rather developed and believable people. Both of the main characters in the two episodes that have been aired so far (Jenny the young single mother and Gavin the young teenager with a debilitating stutter) are desperately repressed and shy, resigned and quietly hiding behind masks of passivity. The young actors do really well to convey inner emotion while remaining apparently resolute, and any revealing moments are all the more effective for it. Similarly the events of the day are nothing that extraordinary and don’t culminate in any sort of cinematic epiphany, but rather grow into a slow dawning awareness. It’s a mature approach to telling this type of story. This is much tougher to pull off than simply relaying a narrative, but for me it worked.
The style reminded me a lot of Pavee Lackeen, a film about an Irish Traveler that similarly surprised me in its self-restraint. The temptation with this separate-but-interconnected-storylines structure must be to try being too clever, and end up making Short Cuts for inner city Dublin. Thankfully Prosperity avoids this, and avoids the Oscar-baiting wailing and gnashing of teeth that could also have come with the roles.
Television drama rarely ventures beyond straight storytelling or character arcs, with every scene progressing the narrative steadily towards a conclusion, but Prosperity makes the most of the diversion by taking the opportunity to instead gradually build mood. To begin with, there’s a sense of tense anticipation that something explosive is going to happen at the end of these periods of quiet buildup, and then nothing does and you deflate. This mirrors what you expect of the characters too; there’s a lot of anger built up, but they refuse to let it out in any way. After all of this non-release, when something does eventually happen (as at a couple of points in the second episode), it’s comes as a shocking dull thud, just like in real life. I guess the style I’m describing is Realism, but that’s not really a style that we associate with portrayals of modern Ireland at all.
Which leads nicely into one of the most striking things about watching the first episode: the contrast between the program itself and the content of the three ad breaks that interspersed it. From a stylistic point of view the frenetic, saturated ads clashed with the careful editing and muted tones of the program. But the content was a complete juxtaposition too; expensive cars, wrinkle cream and holiday homes bookended the lingering shots of Jenny sitting around in the shopping centre, waiting for the day to pass. Of course this would not have been the intention of the filmmakers, but if you want your social message, there it is.
For fear of annoying the program’s detractors further I’ll restrain myself from talking too much about the Joycean similarities of a main character wandering around Dublin for a single day, interacting with a variety of characters, listening to the colloqueal speech patterns, quietly observing the details of everyday life, walking along streets and past local landmarks. But it’s there if you want to look for it, that’s there too.
The dialogue, yeah? Not much there either. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a typical exchange from the first episode between Jenny and her friend:
INT. CITY PARK
Stacey and Jenny are sitting on a bench in the park.
JENNY Boring here isnâ€™t it?
JENNY I like your scrunchie.
STACEY Got it today.
JENNY Did you?
JENNY Itâ€™s nice. Purple is nice.
STACEY Yeah. Why didnâ€™t Natasha come in with you?
JENNY On bebo all day she is.
JENNY I think Lauren is coming in though.
STACEY Why is she coming in?
JENNY Getting something. Buying something.
STACEY You hanging around with her now?
If you think this is desperately pedestrian, you’re right, but that’s the whole point, just as it was in Waiting for Godot (whoops, now I’ve invoked Beckett). We Irish have a tendency to romanticise the simple nobility of the common man from our past (hence the undying obsession of Irish films and plays with the misery and deprivation of stony grey 1920’s Connemara cottages and crammed Dublin tenement houses). Yet somehow it’s a leap too far to see any kind of poetry in the banality of modernity. The English seem to have no problem with this type of thing, as evidenced by Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows and co.
Additional credit for Prosperity to RTÃ‰ for making the episodes available to watch online in full as they are aired, both with and without director and writer commentary, as well as the shooting script that the dialogue above was taken on.