Smother (Alibi), a new County Clare-set thriller by novelist and television writer Kate O’Riordan, reminds me – and I have few higher compliments – of the work of Maeve Binchy, if she had ever turned her hand to whodunnits. It has a seemingly effortless mastery of a large cast of characters, warm intelligence pervading everything, and promotes the gorgeous general sense of being held for the duration in a very safe pair of hands indeed. Like Binchy, it is also entirely addictive.
It opens with an altercation on a clifftop that ends with a man dead on the beach below. Then, as is currently TV fashion, we spool back to earlier that night, as successful businessman Denis (Stuart Graham) hosts his wife Val’s (Dervla Kirwan) 50th birthday party. Their three daughters are there – Jenny (Niamh Walsh), a heavily pregnant single doctor who works eternally for Daddy’s approval, Anna (Gemma-Leah Devereux), who is in the final stages of a custody battle with her husband Rory’s ex-wife for the latter’s two sons, and Grace (Seána Kerslake), the fragile youngest, struggling with mental illness and currently off her medication.
Other friends and family are in attendance, including Grace’s best friend, Cathy (Ayoola Smart) – who needs to tell her she is now going out with Grace’s still-beloved ex Joe (Éanna Hardwicke) – and Joe himself, who is now a police detective. Then there’s Denis’s brother Frank (Conor Mullen); Carl (Thomas Levin) – who is having what seems to be an acknowledged affair with Val; Val’s best friend, Alannah, whose frosty reception from Val tells us long before it is confirmed that she slept with Denis; and Elaine (Justine Mitchell), Rory’s ex-wife, who appears like a spectre at the feast but turns out to be the least of everyone’s worries.
Denis decides to make a birthday speech revealing that he and Val are getting a divorce and that Val is shacking up with her young lover, Carl. Grace – already reeling from the discovery of Joe and Cathy’s coupledom – promptly has a meltdown, and everyone scarpers. Including Val, with Carl. Denis gives him a friendly handshake and warns the “fucking gobshite” that Val will come running back home once “she finds out about you”.
If this all sounds a bit much – it’s not. It is paced and parcelled out beautifully. The speech itself demonstrates precisely what kind of man Denis is: a light, gentle, relentless monster, the centre of his own universe, which he intends to order exactly as he likes. The type who fills you with nameless dread whenever you meet them in real life, as you too often do; he is perfectly evoked by Graham.
Denis, as you may have guessed, is the one who ends up going over the cliff later that emotional night. A night during which, Val discovers, a disturbed Grace went roaming, found out that Joe and Cathy were not just going out but engaged and expecting a child, discovered her father was selling her cafe over her head, and ended up at Frank’s house after several unaccounted-for hours.
Meanwhile, we learn than Rory is a volatile man – and Elaine spots him backhand the older boy, which puts the kibosh on her plans to sign the custody papers. Assorted other seeds of suspicion, reveals and red herrings are scattered across the hour and (for I have looked ahead) flourish upon the fertile and generously watered following episodes. As Val tries to piece together what happened, to protect or exonerate Grace, more secrets are excavated and suspects are added and taken away. But everything remains, crucially, within the bounds of possibility. It is possible that things fall apart late on – I haven’t had the chance to watch all six episodes yet – but the potential sprawl is so expertly contained that I would be surprised if it didn’t remain compelling to the end – especially as it is helped by terrific performances, particularly from Kirwan, who has never been better.
The only misstep so far is in opening with the altercation. Few new dramas seem able to resist the temptation to start this way, but in fact, in many cases – including and especially here – withholding it would have created another layer of tension. It takes confidence, sure, to hold off grabbing your audience’s attention, however cheaply, in the first few minutes. But if ever a series should have had it, it’s this one.