Acorn Media // 2007 // 278 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 24th, 2011
A lone cop fights crime and corruption in rural Ireland.
RTÉ Ireland's Single Handed is devilishly chameleonic. At first glance little more than a boring genre cop drama in rural Ireland, Single Handed: Set One defies every expectation and emerges a smart, complex, deep, and elegantly paced show that rivals the best drama currently on television.
Returning from a troubled tour policing the streets of Dublin, Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll (Owen McDonnell) returns home to the windswept west coast of Ireland to his home town, a rural community with strong ties, financial challenges, and a way of doing business that challenges the status quo. Now the chief law enforcement officer in town, Jack sees his home through new eyes as an amoral, corrupt place, full of shadows and secrets, most of them masterminded by the former Garda in charge, now retired -- his father (Ian McElhinney).
Jack enforces the law with unflinching righteousness, but finds resistance at every turn. In this small, insular community, pragmatism is more important than principle, but Jack refuses to relent. His quest for justice soon leads him face-to-face with some hard truths about his townsfolk.
Single Handed: Set One contains the first three stories, on three DVDs:
* "Natural Justice"
Newly returned Sergeant Jack Driscoll returns to his seaside town to become the local law officer in charge, and catches the death of an Eastern European woman in a dilapidated trailer as his first assignment. It appears at first glance to be an accidental death due to carbon monoxide, but Jack pursues the case with great determination. In doing so, he stirs up a hornet's nest of family secrets and lies dating back decades -- lies which his father may have helped perpetrate.
* "The Stolen Child"
A troubled teen mother reports her son as kidnapped, and fingers his drug-addled deadbeat father as the snatcher. A countrywide manhunt is orchestrated, but quickly runs out of steam as no sign of the boy or the father is unturned. Jack pledges to find the child, even as the Garda lose interest. Jack's father, meanwhile, is testifying at an ongoing police corruption investigation, which is causing him some stress. To make matter worse, an old figure from his past emerges.
* "The Drowning Man"
Driscoll tries to rescue a drowning teenager from the ocean, but the boy dies from the ordeal. As Jack investigates, a familiar friend from Dublin shows up in town, and Jack realizes her appearance may not be a coincidence. Before he knows it, Jack is swept up in a complicated undercover operation involving drug trafficking. Jack is warned not to interfere, but soon realizes the teen's death was not an accident, and may be connected to the case.
A serial in the most literal and proudest sense of the word, Single Handed feels more like three feature-length movies than a television series. Based in part on real-life police corruption scandals in County Donegal throughout the last few decades, each 90-minute episode is an individually packaged and perfectly executed nugget of dramatic goodness that defies all attempts to categorize it. The closest I can come is to call Single Handed "extremely Irish," but even that misses the mark. The incestuously dark small town machinations and police corruption depicted here are hardly the stuff of travel brochures, after all.
Even though the shows are really nothing alike at all, a good thematic (and quality) comparison is to draw reference to HBO's The Wire, a masterfully executed, near-perfect snapshot of the inherent and true nature of a place, warts and all. In The Wire, the Baltimore cops are imperfect creatures who utterly failed to live up to their own ideals. The drug dealers often exhibit stronger moral fiber and integrity than the police. In a heavily compressed, Irish sort of fashion, Single Handed: Set One hits the same themes: the Garda (police) are pragmatic to the point of moral bankruptcy, and the one cop striving to hold all to his idyllic standards finds his own compass spinning. "Good" and "bad" hold no sway here, rendered meaningless through a haze of pints at the pub.
On the surface, a picturesque seaside Irish community, but underneath, naught but rot and decay; a house emaciated from beneath by termites. The corrupt Garda are no different than the downtrodden Baltimore Police, in that they represent a failed system that wields power and authority over the lives of all. Those who try and challenge the system -- be it for selfish reasons or noble, for better or worse, for right or wrong -- find that the system wins, always. Each episode of Single Handed sees a principled police officer fighting the corruption in his rural town, fighting the system, and each episode ends a Pyrrhic victory. The cost is devastating.
Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll is self-righteous, fiercely stubborn, and friendly, in a dangerous sort of way. Actor Owen McDonnell plays the character hard and fast with a predatory glint in the eye when he smiles, similar to the way that Clive Owen carries himself in dramatic roles when you can't tell if he's going to hug you or hit you. Other characters come and go, but his father, a retired Garda who left his controversial and pragmatic mark all over the town and its denizens, is the most important to single out. Much of Single Handed is a macho competition between father and son to see which of them has the better policing style, in the proudest and most painfully repressed of Hemingway traditions. The elder Driscoll is corrupt and crooked within an inch of his life, yet carries himself with dignity and poise and is well-respected in the community. The young upstart is passionate, dutiful, and unshakable in his convictions to enforce the law to the letter -- and everyone hates him for it. In doing his job, Jack learns about the decisions his father was forced to make to keep the peace. Instead of finding peace with the revelation, it only makes him angrier, more resentful towards his father for compromising his ideology.
I need to wrap this up now. I could honestly go on and on. There are so many nuances, so many themes, so much quality in the dialogue, the cinematography and the writing that I risk transcribing episodes word-for-word just to explain how good they are. In terms of sheer police drama, Single Handed may be a bit on the slow side (especially for Western audiences) but redeems by offering up masterfully executed twists and turns. Each of these three episodes is so well produced, so strongly executed that it feels like watching three feature films, back to back. This is smart and absorbing television drama at its finest.
The DVD presentation features crisp black levels, immaculate detail, and beautifully saturated colors. This is far and away the best-looking release to date from Acorn -- at least the best this Judge has personally reviewed. Single Handed is a remarkably well-executed show in the cinematography department; each installment is like a film in of itself, with all the care and detail that one would expect from such. Some of the compositions, especially the natural and rugged beauty of western Ireland, is stunning. Cameras weave and pull in and out of focus tantalizingly, suggesting sinister machinations just out of frame. This level of detail and execution puts some Hollywood blockbusters to shame.
Audio comes in standard Dolby Stereo with English subtitles, and gets the job done. The score is ambient and ever-present, a mix of pulsating tones and orchestral strings that thrums and vibrates anxiously in the background, heightening the tension. Dialogue is clear, bass response is average, and the mix overall feels solid. No complaints.
Extras are lame. We get text interviews with the producer and production notes. No moving content.
Like all television shows rich in complexity, tone, and character, Single Handed is, well, slow-moving, almost glacial. To describe it as languid in its pacing is being generous. To borrow an alcoholic metaphor, this is not a show you chug -- this is a show you break out the fine glasses for and savor the living bejesus out of.
A smashing and engaging drama, Single Handed: Set One is a winner. It's now in its fourth series on Ireland's RTÉ, so my fingers are crossed that Acorn releases further installments -- and, perhaps most importantly, that the show maintains this level of quality.
Review content copyright © 2011 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 278 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text Interview
* Production Notes
* Official Site