Ballykissangel might be thought of as an Irish companion series to Northern Exposure: a fish out of water (in this case, a Priest, not a doctor) arrives in a remote village full of idiosyncratic characters, one of whom is the remote village itself. This long-running BBC series, which weathered almost Law and Order sized cast changes over the course of its six years, as well as a dramatic change in focus when series creator and chief writer Kieran Prendiville left the production for a few years, is a sweet and sharp character-driven dramedy that repeatedly delivers the goods as it explores matters large and small, from metaphysical ethical dilemmas to more earthly tribulations like unexpected pregnancies.
This massive boxed set includes all episodes from all six seasons, as well as a host of special features.
Note: Some spoilers may be revealed in the synopses below, though I've attempted to minimize them. Proceed at your own peril.
The first season focuses on the new arrival, Father Peter Clifford, an English priest not exactly overly welcome in this very Irish burg, as he meets the various townspeople, all with nicely developed backstories. His first encounter is with the unusually named Assumpta Fitzgerald, local bar owner, and it's only slightly creepy to say that there is some subtextual sexual tension between them that is dealt with with subtlety over the course of their burgeoning relationship. Father Clifford is young, charismatic, and both bemused and overwhelmed by the many people he comes in contact with, including Brian Quigley, the local wealthy benefactor, who, in a hilarious subplot, has bought St. Joseph's a high-tech confessional complete with fax machine and air conditioning. Unfortunately he forgot to measure it before its arrival, necessitating some improvisation to get it properly installed inside the church. And there's also Father Mac to deal with, the regional administrative Priest, who doesn't appear to be very happy to see Clifford arrive.
Season One continues its exploration of the interrelationships between the characters, including touching and occasionally fiery doings between Quigley and his daughter, Niamh. The series does not shy away from some controversial elements, such as when a former girlfriend of Clifford's arrives in Ballykissangel to attempt to make him stray from his vows of celibacy, and Niamh's desire to consummate her relationship before marriage.
The season concludes with Father Clifford's future at St. Joseph's perhaps uncertain, and the depth of his feelings for Assumpta becoming ever-clearer, a suitably cliff-hanging wrap-up to a smashing first year.
Season Two seems to leave the discord of Father Clifford's tenure aside for a moment and delves into Niamh's problems, as well as the growing tension between Clifford and Father Mac. Quigley's machinations to promote Ballykissangel, as well as his sometimes shady business dealings, are also grist for the mill in several episodes.
Series Three starts with a lovely Irish Christmas celebration and also brings to the forefront several supporting characters who had only been passingly referenced in previous years. Clifford also leaves Ballykissangel on "retreat," leaving Father Mac to discover that maybe his supposed nemesis was actually an aid after all. Quigley's continued business dealings cause stress both within the village and to Quigley himself, with his ultimate downfall the focus of several episodes. In a shocking development, a major character is unexpectedly killed in a freak accident, causing Clifford to leave Ballykissangel in the climax of this season.
The fourth season picks up with the aftermath of the character's death and its effect on the townspeople and one particular business. It also introduces some new characters, chief among them the new Priest, Father Aidan, though a continuing focus on Niamh and her troubled marriage plays a large part throughout the year. Several other new characters are also introduced, including Brendan Kearney, the headmaster at the local school, whose story becomes increasingly important over the course of several episodes.
Series Five continues its focus on Niamh, starting the year out with yet another tragic death involving her. The whole season drifts from the parish-oriented stories of the first two-plus seasons and concentrates mostly on more secular stories involving the various townsfolk. As in previous years, Quigley's up to no good, plotting madly to make a buck, and those plots provide the basis for several episodes. As might be expected at this relatively late date in the run, new characters start appearing to augment the already years-old storylines that have been running.
Kieran Prendiville luckily returned for the Sixth and Final Season of Ballykissangel, bringing the series back to it roots, so to speak, with the arrival of yet another new priest, this time an Australian, Father Sheehan, about a year after the end of Series Five. Apparently attempting to kick-start the series into a second life, very few of the characters from previous seasons are still featured, and instead we are introduced to a new gaggle of BallyK villagers.
General overview: Ballykissangel is frequently whimsical, slightly fantastic and gently disarming. All of the character actors do exceptional work, especially Stephen Tompkinson as Clifford and Dervla Kirwan as Assumpta in the first several seasons. Tony Doyle manages to keep Quigley always entertaining even when the character seems more than a bit sleazy, and his interactions with the equally excellent Tina Kellegher as Niamh have the sometimes dysfunctional ring of truth that colors most family relationships.
The series definitely loses a bit of its charm starting with the third season, when other writers come increasingly on board and the focus shifts away from the church and becomes at times soap-operatic. Even with the loss of focus, however, the charm and essential truth of the characters is such that even the occasional histrionics of the various storylines don't deflate the proceedings too often. Unfortunately things get a bit turgid during seasons four and five, where an increasing use of simply silly elements (e.g., a bear trapped in the church), while ostensibly quite funny and all right in and of themselves, show how far the series had fallen from its initial state of grace, where the emphasis was on character instead of plot devices. One simply gets the feeling that the writers (and thus the actors) are forcing their whimsy on us, which makes it decidedly less whimsical. While some of the magic is back for the final season, there's still an air of "been there, done that" that colors the proceedings, and it never quite achieves the effervescence of the first two years.
The full frame 1.33:1 image is typical of television broadcasts: not up to cinema standards, but certainly enjoyable. The earlier years are just a tiny bit soft at times, but generally the image is just fine.
A standard stereo soundtrack is well recorded and works just fine for this series.
Four nice documentaries give some behind the scenes information, as well as interviews with the stars. One of the most enjoyable is a walking tour through Avoca, the real-life town that doubles for Ballykissangel in the series. There are also cast bios on all the DVDs.
Taken in its entirety, Ballykissangel certainly has the charm of the Irish going for it in droves. As in any long-running series, a certain lethargy creeps in after a while, but the going is certainly most enjoyable for the bulk of the show. Filled with memorable characters, sharply written and frequently hilarious dialogue, not to mention the gorgeous Irish locations, this is a show to enjoy on many levels, and which, at its best, explores timeless themes with rare relevance and insight, and with that special wink and gleam in the eye that is peculiarly Irish.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet