In the UK: Sundays, BBC4, 10pm. Available on the iPlayer
Imagine if Katie Price’s next book turned out to be Hamlet. It would be incredible, wouldn’t it? Unbelievable, in fact.
But we’re talking that level of surprise that French TV could come up with Engrenages (aka Spiral).
For the most part, French TV is dubbed American imports, films, game shows and sitcoms that make ITV’s best efforts look like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Yet, a few years ago, bewilderingly Canal+, France’s answer to HBO, came up with Spiral, a French cop show almost as good as The Wire – and every bit as gritty, socially conscious, well written, well acted and authentic, albeit with some very pretty French people indeed.
The first season was a no-holds barred look at the French justice system, and was unafraid to show judges as corrupt, cops as racist, brutal and criminal, and lawyers as amoral and willing to screw over anyone for their own advancement.
Now, a year after it aired in France, BBC4 has finally gotten around to showing the second season. Could it possibly be as good as the first season?
Miracles do happen. It is.
Here’s a trailer for season two – it’s in French mind and contains a few spoilers for the next episode.
When a charred corpse is found in the boot of a car in the suburbs, Berthaud’s police team are called to the scene along with the prosecutors Roban and Clement. So begins an investigation which forces the team into the broken, gang-ruled suburbs of Paris, and once more to the door of shady lawyer Josephine Karlsson.
Is it any good?
We’re pretty much thrown in at the deep end with episode one, where everything continues a few months on from the end of season one – although no one seems to have found that body in the plastic bag. All the old characters are here, not especially wiser, but certainly just as willing to put necessity and their own advancement above honesty and doing the right thing.
It’s been a while since series one so my memory may be a bit sketchy, but it looks to me like the handsome judge is just finishing his divorce, thanks to the evil Josephine Karlsson’s legal services, but seems to have split up with his police detective girlfriend. Karlsson’s not doing too well for herself, thanks to her association with the crooked judge in the last season, and is now getting raided by the bailiffs. And the other cops now have a young recruit to add to their number.
The main story, however, has shifted from prostitution and political corruption to drugs, immigration and the disparity between rich and poor in Paris. Here, we have in true The Wire style various disparate strands and characters doing their own, seemingly unrelated things that will no doubt come together by season end. We have a drugs dealer who burns bodies in the boots of cars, a rich kid at an elite school who sells drugs to his friends, and a child who lives in one of Paris’s banlieues who’s witnessed a murder. They’re all related – we just have to see how.
Against the backdrop of the main plot, we have a reoccurrence of the season one motif, much like Murder One‘s, in which various minor crimes and their processing by the French legal system are depicted. Here we see how the beautiful but amoral lawyer Josephine Karlsson once again bucks the system, takes bribes, dumps on her clients and helps serious criminals and wife beaters get off the hook if it helps her get on and solve her debt crisis. We also see little touches, like the cops’ and lawyers’ attitudes to the poor and the rich, to the immigrant population of Paris, and to other parts of the legal system.
This all feels absolutely authentic, although not in quite the same way as The Wire, which more or less with every line gave you some new nugget of information about Baltimore’s crime scene – betraying in part its origins in a journalistic endeavour. Spiral is far more based in “show, don’t tell,” in nuance and subtext – something The Wire never did badly but which Spiral does more subtly.
As always, the acting is great, the cinematography fantastic and the plotting tight and effective. From a UK perspective, it does occasionally feel that France’s inquisitional justice system, the mechanics of which might take the casual viewer some getting used to, is desperately backwards in some regards; the cops’ and lawyers’ methodologies feel like they’re from 10 years ago, sometimes longer. So you may find your jaw dropping involuntarily in response to some of the things you see on-screen.
As an opener, this was thoroughly engrossing, although its “take no prisoners” attitudes mean that it’ll be hard for anyone who hasn’t seen season one to really get to grips with what’s going on. Although the main plot is accessible enough, the character’s relationships will be nearly unfathomable to the uninitiated. However, for season one fans this is what we’ve been waiting for.
Anyone want episode-by-episode reviews (assuming I have the time)?
Incidentally, I’m told a third season should be airing in France by the end of the year, with 12 episodes instead of eight, and there may be a further two seasons after that. You can also buy the first season on DVD from Amazon.