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Review: Spin (Les hommes de l'ombre) 1x1-1x2 (France: France2; UK: More4)

Posted on January 14, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Spin (Les hommes de l'ombre)

In the UK: Fridays, 9pm, More4. Also available on Walter Presents
In France: Aired on France 2, 2012-2014

To the rest of the world, it can sometimes seem like the only TV channel in France that makes scripted French-language television is Canal+. Take your pick of shows - Engrenages (Spiral), The Last Panthers, Les Revenants, Braquo, The Tunnel - if it's at least partly in French, it's going to be from Canal+.

TF1? That only makes English language shows, like Crossing Lines, Jo and Taxi Brooklyn, surely?

This, of course, is not the case. TF1 makes plenty of French-language shows - TMINE's pal Monsieur Thierry Attard will point you in their direction in both English and French, if you're so inclined. There are also plenty of other French TV channels out there making TV in French. It's just we've never really bothered importing it until now.

But having poached all its formats back in the 80s when it was just starting up and now newly awakened to its ratings potential thanks to the success of Les Revenants, Channel 4 is once again looking at French TV as a potential way to fill up the airwaves - as well as the Internet, thanks to Walter Presents. And since everyone, even BBC Four, has been a bit lax at airing anything French for the past 30 years or so, that means Channel 4 is free to pick its way through all of French TV's archives for the cream of the crop.

So, firstly, we have to thank Walter. Les hommes de l'ombre first aired on pubcaster France 2 nearly four years ago. But despite popping up at 2013's Totally Serialized (you could have won tickets to see it, thanks to this 'ere blog, in fact) and featuring the Only Handsome French Actor Everyone Knows About, Grégory Fitoussi (Engrenages, American Odyssey, Mr Selfridge, World War Z, GI Joe), no one bothered with it until Walter picked it for his web site. 

And it's a good choice. Despite its misleadingly translated English title of Spin, it's actually quite a hard hitting political thriller looking at public perceptions, PR, deception by the state, and modern political campaigns. It stars Bruno Wolkowitch (The Tourist) as Simon Kapita, an old-school political operator of integrity, headhunted by the UN to head up one of its commissions. However, on a quick trip back to his homeland, the man he helped to become President of France is killed by a suicide bomber of Algerian descent, so everyone naturally assumes he was a terrorist. The President of the Senate (Philippe Magnan) takes over and starts to clamp down on security, but Kapita soons discovers that Magnan is hiding the bomber's true motivation for political advantage - he wants to become the new President. 

That's the plot for episode one. However, wisely for once, More4 aired the first two episodes on Friday, and it's a bit misleading for me to leave things there since although that deadly secret does remain an important plot point, the show moves on. It's then about Kapita first selecting a potential alternative candidate (Nathalie Baye), persuading her to run for office and then managing her campaign. Equally important is the fact that Kapita's protégé, the ambitious and trendy young Ludovic Desmeuze (Fitoussi), throws aside his integrity to run Magnan's campaign, pitting the two former friends against each other in an escalating political war.

Although comparisons to Borgen are obvious, the show is its own beast, having as much in common with that Danish show as it does with The West Wing, with Kapita's assembling of his political team reminiscent of that show's In The Shadow of Two Gunmen and he being almost as inspirational as Josiah Bartlett in his own, French way. 

But it's really a much darker show than both of them. I said Spin was a mistranslation and its French title gives you a better idea of the kind of show it is: Les hommes de l'ombre. As well as being a nice bit of aural word play, this means roughly both 'the men in the shadows' and 'the men behind the scenes', and indeed, the show is very much about Wolkowitch and Fitoussi as the hidden kingmakers*, working the cogs of democracy, unseen in the shadows, alongside governmental subterfuge.

It's also very good. While it doesn't have the gritty realism of Engrenages - or the industrial strength Parisian swearing - it's got a strong plot, interesting, albeit relatively conventional characters and situations, and some top acting. Although the female characters don't come out of it very well, they do at least get lots of things to do and the political machinations that we see do have a strong stench of reality to them. Despite the lack of black characters, the show also subtly flags up public racism and islamophobia - a far more topical issue now than it was back in 2012, of course.

Unfortunately, the show's somewhat let down by its English subtitling. The French dialogue is subtle, nuanced and economical; the subtitles are not. While they usually get most of the plot across, they often change the meaning of what's been said in significant ways (such as changing certain characters' perceptions of different political groups and leanings), and somewhat bizarrely do so even when a literal word-for-word translation would have been both more accurate and even better written. 

So take it from me - if the dialogue seems bad, it probably isn't in French.  

Well done then, Walter. Good choice. Just hire a better translator next time.

* Yes, France is a republic and Wolkowitch wants to get a woman elected. You know what I mean

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News: Showtime's Engrenages adaptation, Revenge & Helix cancelled, Sky Arts 2 to close + more

Posted on April 30, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Film

Australian TV
  • ABC green lights: futuristic drama Cleverman, with Iain Glen, Frances O’Connor et al
UK TV
  • Sky Arts 2 to close, Sky Arts On Demand to launch

US TV shows

US TV show casting

New US TV shows

New US TV show casting

  • Josh Stewart and Parker Croft join HBO’s Lewis and Clark
  • Josh Radnor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead join PBS’s Mercy Street
  • James Purefoy joins Sundance’s Hap and Leonard [minor spoilers for The Following]

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Third-episode verdict: American Odyssey (US: NBC; UK: BBC Two)

Posted on April 21, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerAmericanOdyssey.jpgA Barrometer rating of 2

In the US: Sundays, 9/8c, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by BBC Two. Will air in May

Three episodes into American Odyssey, a sort of Crash meets State of Affairs meets Zero Dark Thirty that sees three separate characters investigating a single conspiracy in countries over the world, and we’ve not seen a single Cyclops. No pirates. No witches. Not even a helpful princess doing her washing. In short, there ain’t much Odyssey in American Odyssey.

There’s a lot of special forces soldier Anna Friel talking Arabic and wondering where she can find a PC with a USB port for her flash drive full of incriminating documents, while being passed parcel-like between different groups of kidnappers in Mali.

There’s a lot of corporate investigator Peter Facinelli looking pained as he discovers that it’s really not that easy to investigate incredibly powerful multinational companies in cahoots with the US military and trying to cover up the fact they’re co-funding al Qaeda.

There’s even a lot of trustfunder-turned-Occupy Wall Streeter Jake Robinson running around trying to find an email from Friel while the very obvious fake journalist he’s with comes up with really poor excuses for why people keep dying/going missing/changing their story et al as soon as Robinson mentions them to her.

But despite its supposed inspiration from Homer, there's not a single whirlpool or monster, goddess or dead hero to be spotted for miles, let alone a spouse at home weaving a tapestry every night to hold off the suitors.

What. A. Swizz*.

On the plus side, though, as I mentioned in my review of the first episode, it does all feel a step up from the usual military-industrial complex conspiracy theories that we’ve had up until now. There are some Greeks - or should I say ‘Greeks’ given the Alexis Tsipras-alike Greek ambassador is played by Orla Brady. There’s lots of Arabs in various shades of grey (well, mostly shades of black, but there are shades) and they get to speak Arabic… and French, because lo-and-behold, just turned up in episode three as a drug dealer, ready to parle français, is Spiral/Engrenage’s own Grégory Fitoussi - I do hope he didn’t quit to be in this.

Nevertheless, a step up is not the same as ascending to the top of Mount Olympus. Despite narrowly evading a “look around the room to guess the inspiration for the Leet Hacker’s password” scene, episode two saw a silly amount of moments where anyone who’s ever even received an email will know the show is being technically illiterate. There’s a heinous amount of coincidences going on, including one boy’s uncle whom he’s never met turning out to be the exact person on TV he was looking at unsuspectingly (and judgementally) earlier in the same episode. And there are so many suspicious deaths and implausible official denials happening that the baddies might as well put up signposts saying “This way to the government cover-up!"

So while it’s definitely in the upper end of the genre, with some lovely location work, a decent cast and a proper attempt to tie what could be very generic into real world events, American Odyssey is unfortunately a bit more of a miss than a hit.

* Oh, there is one obvious reference to Greek myth, BTW - there’s a character called Kharon scheduled to pop off in later episodes, Kharon/Charon being the ferryman who took travellers across the Styx to the underworld. Not to be pedantic, though, but Kharon isn't actually mentioned in The Odyssey, as he only appears much later as a figure in Greek religion. Oh well. Still. A. Swizz.

Barrometer rating: 2
TMINE prediction: Given its ratings, it’s unlikely to get a second season, and to be honest, it probably doesn’t deserve one

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