Amazon’s Frank of Ireland isn’t a particularly brainy comedy, yet it’s a half-hour that left me trying to do math.
In a six-episode season, how many episodes need to have potential — without any ever succeeding wholly — to suggest a show has potential overall? How many jokes in an otherwise inconsistent episode need to somewhat land in order for that episode to be considered as having potential? How are those numbers impacted if the second half of a short season might be more potential-filled than the first?
With the exception of the beloved educational format Square One Television, nobody watches comedy with a calculator in hand. So if I tell you that Frank of Ireland isn’t very good, but that the third, fourth and sixth episodes at least had elements that made me chuckle, is that arithmetic really going to get you to watch? And why?
Certainly, I’m not going to be able to sell you on a description of Frank of Ireland, created by siblings Brian and Domhnall Gleeson with Michael Moloney; it’s impossible to avoid making it sound like any of a hundred lazy sitcoms or indie films about boorish man-children, their cringe-inducing misadventures and the friends and family who inexplicably love them.
Frank Marron (Brian Gleeson) is the featured man-child. Frank is an unemployed singer-songwriter working on a double album about the counties of Ireland. That sounds ambitious until you realize that he hasn’t actually written a single song since breaking up with Aine (Sarah Greene) six years earlier. He has, however, come up with three or four pun-driven song titles. I can respect that.
Bearded, uncouth and belligerent, Frank lives with Mary (Pom Boyd), a manipulative, heavy-drinking mess in her own way. He claims he still lives at home to take care of her. This isn’t true. Frank’s best friend is named Doofus (Domhnall Gleeson), a naive innocent who’s more of a child-man than a man-child, though he holds down a stable gig as an assistant grocer and his codependent relationship with Frank may be the show’s purest element, a decidedly relative thing.
I can actually imagine how Frank of Ireland could really work if Frank and Doofus were the central figures in a collection of short stories by Roddy Doyle or another Irish scribe with a similar balance of high- and lowbrow conceits. Frank’s bellowing and Doofus’ naiveté might be the kind of characteristics that play on the page better than if you have to witness them, and perhaps in smaller doses. These episodes are 23 to 25 minutes and that’s pushing it.
Frank of Ireland gets off to a particularly rough start with a premiere dominated by lowbrow body humor — farts, boners and pale Irish bums, oh my! I can very nearly imagine that it’s almost parodying a type of lazy British “humour,” though it’s harder to disregard the repetitive gags that barely rise to the level of jokes, like how Frank can’t get into a cab without quoting the filthiest passages from Taxi Driver to the unwitting, well, taxi driver.
He proceeds to crash Aine’s grandmother’s wake and funeral, engaging in the sort of vaguely mortifying behavior and swift forgiveness man-children of this type generally face. Whether you compare Frank to Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe character (Sharon Horgan is an EP here), a half-dozen Will Ferrell characters, a half-dozen Rik Mayall characters, various maladjusted boors from the Mitchell & Webb (Peep Show) catalogue or the less sentimental works of Ricky Gervais — it’s like if David Brent had the main character from Derek as his bestie — you’ll know the game very early on. Again, the generous reading is that it’s self-aware parody.
There are places where the Gleesons are having fun, you can sense three decades of fraternal riffing coming out on the screen and you wonder why the bursts of inspiration had to come out in such familiar characters. There’s no room for Brian Gleeson to play Frank as anything other than a ginger wrecking ball, and having his doppelgänger dad present for the season finale gives him something of comparable scale to play against.
Domhnall Gleeson has more variations in the quieter role, and I’ve always enjoyed him in comic mode. Yet I’m not sure anything about Doofus’ “condition” is the same from one episode to the next; you’ll either be bothered by that or you won’t. Boyd and Greene do their best to attract the attention of a camera that would just as soon stay with the show’s co-creators.
The Taxi Driver jokes in the premiere, while not all that amusing, establish one of the more distinctive parts of Frank of Ireland: the consistently inconsistent use of movie references as running gags, with extended nods to Misery, Memento, Home Alone and the collected works of Kevin Costner.
The more the show commits, the more I at least found things to chuckle at, peaking with a fourth episode in which Frank crashes a gender-swapped production of 12 Angry Men, which he thinks is A Few Good Men. That episode lacks the hints of emotion that pop up in the end of the third episode, and it can’t compete with the expert buffoonery of Brendan Gleeson’s cameo in the sixth. But it’s perhaps the episode that best indicates that the creators know how to properly craft the sort of farce that they’re otherwise flailing at. You look at those three episodes and you might think further adventures in this world could be worthwhile.
Otherwise, you’re grasping at snippets of clever, tart dialogue — “Which part of you will always love me?”/”My self-loathing, probably. Yeah, I didn’t mean that in a good way.” — or performance beats for justification to continue, since it’s not like the characters are constructed as anything more than “relatably sloppy.” Frank of Ireland is under three hours of total bingeing — brief but still a long time to be deliberating on whether a show is a bad man-child comedy or a spotty parody of bad man-child comedies.
Creators: Brian and Domhnall Gleeson, and Michael Moloney
Cast: Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Greene, Pom Boyd
Premieres Friday, April 16, on Amazon.