In the UK: Sundays, 10pm, FX UK
In France: Canal+. First broadcast 2009
Once upon a time – i.e. five or six years ago – FX was the place to go to if you wanted to watch the best, most niche US TV shows. The Wire was on FX years before DVD and BBC2 showings made it nearly a household name, while Dexter and numerous other top-quality shows aired only on FX or aired on it first.
Then along came Sky Atlantic and screwed all that up. Have a look at the roster now and yes, there’s The Walking Dead, True Blood and American Horror Story, but that’s three horror shows, only one of which is any good and everything else is just re-runs. And let’s not start on the fact The Defenders is on there. That’s just embarrassing.
So FX came up with a cunning idea: let’s see what countries other than the US have to offer. So it started with Canadian TV. Along came The Border, which wasn’t half bad, The Listener, which was, and ReGenesis and The Booth At The End, which I admit I’ve never seen but which I also admit I don’t feel inspired to watch, either.
But hunting for good quality Canadian TV can be tricky. For every, The Border, jPod, Being Erica or Endgame, there’s a The Line, Men With Brooms, InSecurity, Good Dog or XIII waiting to make you regret your TV-watching decision. FX can’t exactly pack its schedules to the rafters with Canadian TV, particularly since E4’s started nicking Canadian shows as well.
So FX has cunningly decided, just as BBC4 is cutting back on its acquisition budgets and focusing on Scandinavian shows, to capitalise on one of that channel’s other innovations and look close to home for its shows. To France, in fact.
So not only has it been showing the two-part movie Mesrine, starring Vincent Cassel as the eponymous gangster, it’s also acquired Spiral/Engrenages‘s sibling show at Canal+ Braquo, a dark policier about a cop with broad definitions of legality and what he’s allowed to do.
The question is – has FX found the new The Killing or is it about to discover what those of us who have watched French TV for some time now have found: that French TV drama, by and large, sucks?
Here’s a trailer.
A dark realistic cop series from world-famous filmmaker Olivier Marchal. Braquo follows a squad of Paris cops who exist in the blurred boundaries at the very edge of the law, often using violence and intimidation to get the job done. The lives of these officers change radically when their squad leader, falsely accused of corruption, commits suicide. Determined to clear his name they start an investigation of their own, only to find that the police department itself stands in their way.
Driven by adrenaline and a thirst for justice, they must turn their backs on the laws they’re sworn to enforce if they are to uncover the truth. Facing constant danger from all sides – and with the two most likely outcomes being imprisonment or death – the stakes couldn’t be higher, but that merely serves to crank up the tension in this acclaimed series.
Is it any good?
You know, for about the first 45 minutes, it really isn’t. It is a stereotypical French policier, given a violent gloss. But after that, it suddenly reveals that not only is it going to cross the edge you didn’t think it was going to cross, but it’s going to fly over it at high speed while revealing surprising depths.
The bulk of the first episode deals with Max, the boss of a bunch of cops who don’t so much have a police station as an empty warehouse and who don’t so much stop crime as commit really quite serious crimes in order to stop even more serious crimes.
Max is getting a bit annoyed with the lippy suspect he’s got trussed up naked in the cells so stabs him in the eye with a pen.
If you thought Spiral‘s cops played rough, you ain’t see nothing yet.
Anyway, having stabbed a suspect in the eye with a pen, Max is naturally investigated by internal affairs. Meanwhile, all his colleagues, including bestest pal Eddie (the award-winning Jean-Hugues Anglade), reckon that’s all nothing to be worried about and the suspect had it coming anyway. Who are these internal affairs people anywhere?
While they’re worrying about Max and IA, they’re also putting on balaclavas and pretending to be crims with shotguns, so they can threaten crooked lawyers into revealing confidential information about their evil clients.
And for about 45 minutes, that’s the show you get: the middle-aged lone cop Eddie, weighed down by the evils of the world, bending – okay, massively breaking – the law to see justice done. He’s nice to Max’s wife, he’s nice to Max, he rebels against the commissioner, he does the right thing when his colleagues get too far out of line. So far, so eminently predictable and dull, despite the high production values and a heavy emphasis on realism that includes a lack of any beautiful people (unlike Spiral), a mass of guns, Olivier Marchal’s very cinematic direction and the fact that the whole show is written by Marchal, a former French police officer.
I say heavy emphasis on realism, but it doesn’t really feel real. As well as cops stabbing suspects in the eye because of the pressure of the job and the fact the criminals they’re dealing with aren’t that nice, we also have trumped up charges like “attempted sodomy with a steel rule”. That’s a real line by the way. In fact, with its pantomime villain internal affairs detective, criminals and lawyers, the whole thing feels like a bizarre French policeman’s revenge fantasy: an exaggerated, police-eye view of what’s wrong with the French justice system, in which police should be allowed to do whatever they want, rather than the more circumspect Spiral‘s top-down view.
But towards the end of the show – just after a funeral scene in fact – the show suddenly slows down, acquires a bit of depth and starts to feel real. And then it just rams down the accelerator and drives over the edge. I won’t ruin the surprise, but what started as a policier suddenly becomes an entirely different kind of show.
So I’ll be sticking around for episode two for sure, just to see where the hell this weird show is going. Give it a try – if you’re expecting another The Killing stay well clear. If you’re expecting something of the intelligence and quality of Engrenages/Spiral, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want something a little different, a little edgy, something that’s more like Australia’s Underbelly, say, in tone but with more obvious French qualities (such as very young women partnered with much older, uglier men), this looks like it could be the boy for you.
Incidentally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the subtitles. As with Engrenages, the subtitler (who does get named at the end, incidentally, so I’ll be watching to see if the name changes and with it the subtitling style) is sometimes very accurate, sometimes a little loose, sometimes a little prissy, sometimes perfectly willing to let those swear words through. There are actually quite a few more mistakes, some phrases that don’t actually make sense, a tiring tendency to use “you got” rather than “you have” and even more wearisome attempts to go colloquial with the spellings (“dunno”, “sonofabitch”). But they do the job.
PS For those of you wondering, ‘Braquo’ is a French slang term meaning both a very violent robbery and mental – as in ‘he’s a bit mental’.