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