Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 4×1-4×2 (France: Canal+; UK: BBC Four)

The best cop show in the world. That isn't The Wire

In France: Last autumn, Canal+
In the UK: Saturday 9 February, 9pm, BBC Four

Screw The Shield, The Killing and all the others. In the last decade, there have been, as all right-thinking people know, precisely two cop shows in the world that have been truly excellent and have mattered in any real sense. The first, of course, is The Wire. The second, far lesser known show, is France’s Engrenages aka Spiral. The two are similar, comparable even, in that they both try to show their own country’s native justice system, warts and all, while shining a spotlight into the recesses of society, all with as little narrative artifice as is possible in a watchable TV show.

Thankfully, even though The Wire has ceased to be, Canal+ in France – together with some lovely co-funding money from BBC4 – have kept Engrenages going, and judging by the first two episodes of the new season, one could even say “from strength to strength” because for my money, this is at least as good as the show’s finest season opener in terms of narrative and perception, yet with a confidence that only comes with age… and the knowledge that because you are the best, you can do what you like at the pace that you like it.

When last we left our heroes and heroines – perhaps one should say ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’, because no one in Engrenages is truly good, although there’s a fair few evil doers along the way – things were going semi-pear shaped for everyone. Over-committed police captain Laure (Caroline Proust) was off murdering serial killers, amoral lawyer Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) was signing a deal with the devil so she could save her business partner and secret love, Pierre (the UK’s favourite French actor, Grégory Fitoussi, currently in ITV’s Mr Selfridge), and ambiguous yet moral Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos) was monologuing his way into enforced retirement, thanks to Sarkozy’s attempts to reform the French legal system.

In series four, as is tradition, we return not long after those events and yet everything’s changed in quite surprising ways. While it’s not all 100% tickedy boo, some things appear to be changing for the better for once. Karlsson may have to deal with some dodgy Russian mob types, but Pierre’s got her back for a change and they’re flirting at each other like crazy; Laure may be under investigation but she’s finally getting her love life sorted and her new boss seems quite nice. Okay, so Judge Roban is off contemplating his navel somewhere and Gilou (Thierry Godard) is still self-destructing like crazy, but plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say.

And then up pop some leftie students, ready to party like it’s 1968, ready to save hapless souls from France’s oppressive immigration system and capitalism in general. Welcome back, Engrenages. How we missed you. Here’s a trailer (with the usual suspiciously mistranslated English subtitles), plus the first few minutes in French:

Veuillez installer Flash Player pour lire la vidéo

Episode 1
A young couple has been spotted carrying the body of a mutilated man into the woods. Captain Laure Berthaud and her team soon discover that the unidentified man has been killed by a home-made bomb. The team is distracted by from their investigation by internal conflict and the appointment of a new commissioner who wants quick results. Josephine Karlsson is being pressured by a dangerous Russian mobster with links to the Kremlin.

Episode 2
Laure and her team are on the trail of Sophie Mazerat, a student whose car has been traced to the dumping of the bomb-damaged body, and arrest her at the university. Karlsson’s attempts to have Moussa Kone freed from detention are hindered when Thomas’s cell arranges a vicious reprisal attack against the bank which reported him. New boss Herville is making his presence felt in the squad room and nobody is liking his business methods, especially when this leads directly to the squad losing touch with their best lead in this most complicated of cases.

Is it any good?
This feels very much like a return to form after the slightly off-track third season. Episode one gives us something that’s a bit more season 2, concerned with the underclass of French society: in this case, immigrants of all variety. But whereas all the various seasons of Engrenages have had something approaching a slight racism, with all foreigners evil, particularly if they’re Muslim or black, here we have some honest-to-goodness hard-working Africans, victimised by society and just trying to earn a living to support their wives and girlfriends.

We follow one Malian – perhaps more topical now than it was when the show aired in France in September – as he’s arrested on suspicion of being black, and then follow him through the legal system, from arrest to detention centre to initial hearing. At all stages, the debasement of the individual, the oppression of the system and its incredible power to separate families with very little reason are shown with stark matter-of-factness. Indeed, I could have sworn that some of the extras were real cops and detention centre officers, everything was played so naturalistically.

When the lawyers are set upon the situation, we get Karlsson arguing to the height of her rhetoric, comparing the system with the Gestapo, something that means a lot more in a country that was once occupied by the Nazis. But the ridiculousness of her and the other arguments only heightens how far away from the actual squalid reality of the system the proceedings are.

The legal system itself is changing in France, something the show highlights in other areas, not least of which is the total absence of Judge Roban for these first two episodes. The days of inhuman interrogation, if not gone completely, are heading out the window, and the ability of police officers to wantonly shoot criminals is fast disappearing, too, with the officious Judge Wagner now more interested in prosecuted – and persecuting – Laure for her shooting of Ronaldo Fuentes last series than he is in managing his own cases, it would seem.

Here, comparisons with Engrenages‘ sister show on Canal+, Braquo (broadcast in the UK on FX/Fox and available on Hulu in the US), are instructive and perhaps even begged by the writers. That show sees an elite bunch of cops who cross over way too many lines having to cover up after themselves. Their constant refrain is that the unit must stick together, and the show never for one moment suggests they shouldn’t or that their actions have been wrong.

Engrenages is a more grown-up show. We get the same refrain about unit cohesion, but not all the unit want to do the wrong thing – one lone voice knows that Laure has done something wrong and he’s going to keep telling the truth. The show never depicts him as weak or stupid, instead siding with both him and Laure, not choosing sides in a difficult situation and indeed acknowledging that it is a difficult situation, unlike the oddly black and white Braquo.

Surprisingly, given the series arc concerns the student terrorists, not only do they have very little to do in the first episode, with the police having little urgency in catching them despite their building a bomb, when they do turn up, all they want to do is protest and shave people’s heads. As a menace, it’s not terrifying but it demonstrates perhaps that middle-class students who want to help immigrants and hate the 1% really aren’t that worrying compared to the kinds of criminals who grow up in Paris banlieues. But let’s see how that plays out in later episodes, since the ‘terrorists’ are already learning quickly, and the way Laure’s new boss let one of the suspects go to be tailed by someone completely inappropriate suggests – as always and indeed as the title suggests – that there are wheels within wheels here and there’s a lot more set to play out.

Most of these two episodes are less concerned with the ongoing arcs planned for this season than continuing the arcs of the previous seasons, and it continues all of them well and more plausibly than it looked like they were going to be handled. Laure’s lack of love life is a thing of the past, now she’s found love (or at least lust and companionship) with the head of the crime squad (and former love IIRC) whom she was manipulating last season. Gilou is once again taking up with dodgy types, as per the first season, although with a new female arrival on CID, maybe there’s possible reform ahead for him, too.

And then, of course, there’s Pierre and Karlsson. Karlsson is as she always is, but Pierre appears to be sliding down a very slippery slope, taking after his business partner surprisingly quickly – although he thinks he’s perhaps only bending a few rules, to everyone else it’s clear that money (and perhaps Karlsson) is proving more seductive than it once was to Pierre. The show seems to miss a trick for some of these first two episodes, putting Pierre and Karlsson together surprisingly infrequently, but given how much the sparks fly when they are together, it would probably be more than the audience could take if they were together for longer.

All in all, unlike the start of season 3, which focused on the wrong areas and handled everything else badly before picking up again later in the season, these first two episodes of season 4 are a much more assured performance. There are no real excesses, implausibilities or unpalatable misogyny to deal with. The show’s once again political and ready to get viewers to look at things they might not want to. The characters aren’t nose-diving out of control.

In other words, tout est bon dans le cochon. Apart from the subtitles, of course, but what would Engrenages be if you didn’t have an inappropriate ‘bloke’ or ‘grassers’ to giggle at now and then?


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; 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. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

    View all posts