One measure of a television series' cult popularity is how many times it gets repackaged for the home video market. By this measure, the Irish comedy series Father Ted which originally aired on Channel 4 in Britain between April 1995 and May 1998 is a smash success. The new 5-disc box set, entitled Father Ted: The Definitive Collection, is the fourth release of this series for the North American home video market; the third on DVD. This latest release which includes all 25 episodes, along with a bevy of extras, is designed to entice owners of the prior releases to upgrade, while also targeted to capture a slice of the expanding North American DVD market for British television comedy.
Father Ted features three deeply-flawed Roman Catholic priests and their housekeeper, stuck away in an isolated parochial house on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The senior priest, Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly), is an elderly, senile, alcoholic letch. The youngest priest, Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O'Hanlon) is a sweet, simple-minded, religious doubter. The third priest, title character Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), is the only reasonably functional one of the bunch. Father Ted was consigned to Craggy Island for misappropriation of church funds. During the course of the series Father Ted continues to exhibit poor judgment on fiduciary matters, women, media relations, and in his relationship with his superior, Bishop Brennan (Jim Norton). Hence, he is repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to advance off of Craggy Island. The fourth character to round out the principal ensemble, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn), is a manically-nice, exuberantly-enthusiastic housekeeper ever ready to push a cup of tea on the priests.
The Roman Catholic Church receives the brunt of many of the jokes in this series, but the humor is more good natured than mean spirited. For example, much fun is made of Father Jack's lecherous impulses toward girls, but there are no allusions whatsoever to sex crimes by priests against children. Father Ted, written by Irishmen, and staring an all Irish cast, also serves up a lot of good-natured, self-critical comedy about the Irish, but at heart, Father Ted is more a comedy of broad characters than it is a satirical look at Catholicism or Ireland, per se.
As a television series, Father Ted has especially pronounced strengths and weaknesses. The biggest weakness for the show is that
Father Ted is the only character capable of independent judgment and volition. Mrs. Doyle and Father Jack are extremely limited characters. Beyond pushing food and drink, and providing cleaning-related pratfalls, Mrs. Doyle exerts very little influence on the world around her. She is a target for a lothario milkman in one episode, but she never propels an episode through her own volition. Similarly, Father Jack is an amusing sketch character generally capable of uttering only four words (FECK! ARSE! GIRLS!, and DRINK!) who is reliably ornery, with an insatiable desire for alcohol and debauchery, but he has about as much power of reason or free will as a gerbil. Finally, while Father Dougal is far closer to being a fully-formed character than Mrs. Doyle or Father Jack, he essentially operates as nothing more than a genial flunky to Father Ted capable of only the slightest acts of independent judgment or action.
Father Ted has other weaknesses too, for example shoddy sets, a pitifully under-explored local population, and an overabundance of visitors and trips off the island, but it is really the lack of depth in the ensemble characters that dooms Father Ted to being repetitive, lightweight, and ever dependent on contrived externalities to drive the stories. Only Father Ted ever strives to accomplish some goal beyond an immediate, simple gratification like getting drunk, playing a game or serving a sandwich, yet he's forever thwarted. The net result is that the episodes never build; all feeling completely interchangeable. It's all just one damn thing after another.
Despite all this, Father Ted generally works as episodic comedy thanks to the immense talents of its actors and the quality of its writing. All of the actors seem to do as much with their characters as they can. Dermot Morgan rises to the challenge of being the brains and core of the show. Ardal O'Hanlon absolutely shines, transforming a merely dim-witted character into the show's heart. For their part, Pauline McLynn and Frank Kelly are unflappable in their limited roles.
The fine acting is complemented by good episodic writing by series writer-creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan. Though Mathews and Linehan failed to create sufficiently fleshed out characters needed to create a long-term success, they did extremely well with making the show work for as long as it did.
Father Ted: The Definitive Collection presents the episodes in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The image suffers from all the problems typically associated with television shows recorded on analog video: poor color control, aliasing, and low-level video noise. These problems are not unexpected and shouldn't be an impediment to the enjoyment of the show.
Optional English language subtitles are appropriately sized, placed and paced.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital audio sounds fine with only slight and infrequent loss of fidelity.
The extras provided for Father Ted: The Definitive Collection are considerable. Foremost is an audio commentary for every episode by writer Graham Linehan, accompanied by writer Arthur Mathews and actor Ardal O'Hanlon for the episodes from the second and third seasons. There's also a 40-minute interview recorded in 2002 with Linehan and Mathews spread across discs one and five. There's 16 minutes of footage from a 2007 Father Ted convention, spread across discs two and four. A full 30-minute episode of the BBC program Comedy Connections from 2004 detailing the former and subsequent careers of the cast and writers is included, along with 11 minutes of excerpts from Comic Relief '97 featuring appearances by Morgan and O'Hanlon as Fathers Ted and Dougal. Finally, there's another 30+ minutes of odds and ends comprising "best of" material, biographies, sound effects, a photo gallery, and forced trailers for other BBC America DVDs.
Father Ted: The Definitive Collection is a well-packaged presentation of a flawed-but-funny episodic cult comedy series. This thoroughly Irish spoof on the foibles of three Roman Catholic priests is worth a look by viewers that can see past its limited characters and repetitive, interchangable storylines.