It's "What have you been watching?", my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you've been watching.
I did promise you on Monday one potential last WHYBW to sign off with before the Christmas hols to mop up the few shows with remaining episodes this week. And here it is! How exciting. How reliable of me for a change.
After the jump then, the finale of Falling Water and as Netflix released all of Travelers today in the UK, I was able to binge-watch the final episodes, so I'll be looking at them, too. Thanks to its delayed airing, I'll be looking at the latest (not final) episode of Shooter, and I've also watched a few more episodes of The OA since I started it on Monday.
On top of that, I also managed to catch up with another of Netflix's French imports:
Dix pour cent (Call My Agent!) (France: France 2; UK: Netflix) Sort of the French equivalent of Extras, Dix pour cent is set in a talent agency, where the various members of staff have to deal with all the problems that beset the 'talent', including the talent themselves. Except there's all manner of inter-agency rivalry, poaching et al to deal with, too, once the head of the agency pops his clogs.
The show's selling point in France is that series producer Dominique Besnehard was one of the biggest talent agents in France for 20 years and managed huge numbers of top actors, actresses and directors. He then persuaded a select range of these stars to appear as 'themselves' in the show to send themselves up, with episode one seeing Cécile de France (The Young Pope, Around The World in 80 Days, Mesrine) finding herself ditched from a Quentin Tarantino movie for being - gasp! - too old.
Which is a problem for UK audiences, since although there's a chance that some of us will be familiar with some of the stars such as Audrey Fleurot from Engrenages (Spiral), most of the stars are like de France and are going to leave virtually everyone scratching our heads in exactly the same way every American did when Les Dennis turned up in Extras, for example. Even if you do know the show features such cameos (which isn't obvious), most people aren't going to know fictional character from cameo, let alone know an actor's public persona and what they're sending up.
On top of that, it's just not that funny. Quelle surprise, given it's France 2, but the show's few jokes went flashing past unaccompanied by laughs. Oh, and the subtitling is terrible.
One to avoid unless you really know your French acting scene, I'm afraid.
Walter has been napping. Supposedly watching hours of foreign-language TV every week to find the best shows from around the world for Channel 4, somehow he managed to avoid watching any of Canal+'s 2015 output - despite Canal+ officially being France's good TV channel. That means Amazon have had the chance to poach Canal+'s Le Bureau Des Légendes (The Bureau) from out of Walter's hands. Oops.
In that curious way these things happen, we've coincidentally been talking a lot about both verisimilitude and spy shows in the past couple of weeks, taking in along the way both Legends and The Night Manager. The latter is the epitome of modern British spy shows, departing from the glorious semi-realistic days of Callan, The Sandbaggers, et al to give us nonsensical, cliched but glossy affairs that convince almost no one.
Fortunately, France seems to remember how to do a decent spy show, judging by Le Bureau Des Légendes. Set in the undercover section of France's equivalent of MI6, the DGES, it sees Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) playing a top undercover operative who's been working in Damascus for the past six years. He's mysteriously summoned back to Paris at short notice, where very quickly problems emerge with 'Cyclone', the DGES' top operative in Algeria. A devout Muslim, Cyclone is nevertheless mysteriously arrested for drink-driving and is taken away by Algerian police, before promptly disappearing. Has he been rumbled as a spy or has he been turned and engineered his own disappearance?
In common with its stable-mate at Canal+, Engrenages(Spiral), there are multiple wheels turning within wheels in Le Bureau Des Légendes. Despite being ordered to break off all ties with her, Kassovitz invites his married lover from Damascus (Zineb Triki) to visit him in Paris. His superiors wonder whether he has 'Post Mission Disorder' and can't shake off his old life. But more importantly, Triki might have secrets of her own that jeopardise Kassovitz.
At the same time and seemingly unrelated to the main plot, Kassovitz is training up a new operative (Sara Giraudeau) to go undercover in Iran. There's also a new psychiatrist (Léa Drucker) monitoring everyone and Kassovitz has to deal with his now grown-up teenage daughter, whom he left without explanation. And there's a bunch of French spies out in the Sahara somewhere who are definitely up to something, but by the end of the third episode, may themselves not know what that is. Just to make everything even less clear, the third episode is told in flashback while Kassovitz is attached to a lie detector - all without explanation.
How it all fits together I suspect is something that will get revealed by the end of the season, but it's merely happy to set up the puzzles in these first few episodes.
In common with the likes of The Sandbaggers, the show is admirably concerned with realism and tradecraft. Although it occasionally uses the likes of Drucker and Giraudeau to Basil Exposition everything to us, it does do its best to give us a look at how spies probably work and approach security in the 21st century in a way that most other shows ignore. Mobile phones are banned in the Bureau in case of remote exploits turning them into listening devices and operatives have to clean their own desks so that no one who doesn't 'need to know' needs to enter the Bureau. But that's basic compared to things like mapping mobile phone signals and using behaviour analysis of the data to get an indication of likely events.
As you might expect from the double meaning of bureau/office, also in common with The Sandbaggers, this is a show that's mostly about talking and office work. Big chunks of it are people sitting around discussing what precious information they have from far away can mean, as well as internal and external politics with other agencies, divisions, superiors and allies. Although the second episode does give us a car chase of sorts through central Paris, it ends as a car chase in central Paris probably would end, rather than à la The Bourne Identity's. The show also does have the occasional moment of humour, such as an odd little side-plot in the third episode involving a mouse getting into the Bureau and Drucker's analysis of her superior's multi-coloured tie.
Linguistically, there are fun things going on in the French that for once, the subtitles actually do a jolly decent job of conveying, but occasionally miss out on. I quite liked the French 'faire le ménage' (to do the housework) being used to mean 'remove anything incriminating from the house', for example, but that gets translated as 'clean the house', which sort of works but not quite. More entertainingly, all the codenames for undercover operatives are derived from insults and expletives used by Captain Haddock in the French-language Tin Tin comics. But as befits such a globally-focused show, there's plenty of Arabic and the occasional bit of English, too.
It's not 100% realistic. While there's some admirable computer expertise behind the scenes, for some reason everyone in France uses the same Windows XP installation, no matter where they work. It also seems unlikely that anyone who'd been undercover for six years would have been so senior or so readily accepted back into the fold.
But Le Bureau Des Légendes is certainly the best spy show I've seen this year and the first French show in quite some time that I've actually wanted to boxset (sorry, Marseille). There have already been two seasons in France, and a third is on the way, so give it a go if you can.
Barrometer rating: 1 Would it be better with a female lead? Yes, but is that ever going to happen in France? TMINE's prediction: N/A
Here's a French-language trailer, but if you want one with subtitles, you'll need to go here, although there are a few spoilers from after the first three episodes by the looks of it.
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+.
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
About the blog
A UK media blog focusing on the best scripted TV from around the world, with daily news, views, exclusive reviews and good conversation. There's a bit of a bias towards the latest and greatest US TV, but we also cover Scandinavian, Canadian, European and Antipodean TV, as well as UK TV ranging from new Doctor Who to old Z Cars, and BBC4 to S4C.
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I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.