How the Irish Took Over Cable TV

The cast of Showtimes Brotherhood
The cast of Showtimes Brotherhood

By Tom Deignan,Contributor
June / July 2009

It’s been 10 years now since HBO took a chance on a little drama called “The Sopranos” and changed the face of television. When “The Sopranos” hit the airwaves in 1999, no one could have predicted that this offbeat drama about the mob and psychoanalysis would have been the first of many great cable dramas to win prestigious awards and earn huge ratings.

But here’s another thing few people would have predicted: that the Irish would come to dominate critically acclaimed drama all over the cable landscape.

Think about the best of the recent crop of dramas on cable:  “In Treatment,” “Rescue Me,” “Brotherhood,” “The Tudors,” even “The Wire,” which ended its glorious run last year.

All have Irish actors or deal explicitly with Irish-American characters or themes.

Perhaps most importantly, there is little in the way of shallow or stereotypical Irishness in these shows. In some ways, the 2000s have been a high point in the exploration of Irishness in pop culture.

That might have seemed unlikely a few years back when “Rescue Me” and “The Wire” hit FX and HBO respectively.  These two shows feature classic Irish-American male characters – the firefighter (Denis Leary as Tommy Gavin) and the cop (Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty).

Furthermore, both Gavin and McNulty have time-tested Irish flaws – bad tempers, drinking problems, lapsed-Catholic guilt.

However, once these shows started gathering steam, they explored the dark, complex sides of the Irish experience in big cities, in a way that seemed appropriate for the 21st century. For Tommy Gavin, it was dealing with life after so many of his fellow firefighters (many Irish-American) died on 9/11.  For McNulty, it was the difficulties of patrolling a city (Baltimore) where the Irish no longer rule the streets or the government.

But the crusading McNulty kept the spirit of the Irish cop alive. Among other things, whenever a cop retired (or died), all the cops would retire to a bar, get roaring drunk and sing. But they would not sing “Danny Boy.” Nope. They would sing Shane MacGowan and The Pogues’ “Body of an American,” about a raucous Irish wake.

“There was uncles giving lectures / On ancient Irish history. / The men all started telling jokes. / And the women they got frisky. / At five o’clock in the evening / Every b****rd there was piskey.”

Fittingly, the stars of “Rescue Me” – which is on FX Tuesday at 10 p.m. – and “The Wire” knew a thing or two about the Irish experience in real life: both Leary and West are the sons of immigrant parents.

If “The Wire” and “Rescue Me” played with classic Irish-American stereotypes, Showtime’s “Brotherhood” (Sundays at 8 p.m.) dug far and deep into the conflicts inherent in the Irish-American psyche: in the show, one brother is a politician, the other a criminal. Both must contend with one of the towering female characters in TV history, the boys’ mother, brilliantly played by Fionnula Flanagan.

Of course, the lines between right and wrong, family and foe, are blurry.  Like “The Wire” (not to mention Edwin O’Connor’s novel of 50 years earlier “The Last Hurrah”), “Brotherhood” explores the waning days of Irish-American influence, and the lengths to which the Irish will go to cling to whatever slice of power they continue holding on to.  The fact that “Brotherhood” also has the whiff of real life (the Bulger brothers of Boston come to mind) gives the show even wider resonance.

Once “Rescue Me”, “The Wire” and “Brotherhood” proved that great drama could be made about characters who were not named Tony Soprano, executives began turning to Irish-born talent.

Gabriel Byrne took on the challenging role of psychoanalyst Paul Weston in HBO’s “In Treatment.”  Based on an Israeli drama, the show’s ambitious first season aired every night of the week, showcasing Dr. Weston’s five patients. The show now airs Sundays at 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, over on Showtime, Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as King Henry VIII in the third season of “The Tudors,” which shows just how contemporary the trials and tribulations of a 16th-century royal family can be.

Interestingly, in June, yet another strong Irish-American character will show up on cable. Edie Falco will star in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” about a nurse coping with adversity at work and home. Initially, Falco’s name in the show was Jackie O’Hurley. Producers played up her tough Irish girl image. But reports now suggest the character’s name has been changed to Jackie Peyton.

Is the great Irish moment of cable over? Time will tell. Either way, it has produced some of the greatest moments of TV drama ever.

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