Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 4×5-4×6 (France: Canal+; UK: BBC Four)

In France: Last autumn
In the UK: Saturday 23 February, 9pm, BBC Four

Well, we’re halfway throughout season 4 already. How distressing is that? Bloody BBC, burning through these things as if there’s an unlimited supply. This is France’s answer to The Wire, we’re talking about, and there’s not a lot on TV to rival it.

A more even affair this, following last week’s mix of not-so-cracking and cracking, with shocks aplenty. And for those who think I’m kidding about that comparison with The Wire, this week, on top of the usual less-than-complimentary look at French society, we had a police officer’s gun stolen and him going all out to get it back, a bunch of high-up police officers more concerned with the stats than getting to the root cause of crime, and a mysterious Greek with criminal connections turned up.

One unshocking thing we learnt this week, too: Ms Rullsenberg should be writing these reviews…

Episode 5
The autopsy of the Kurd reveals a hidden clue which leads Herville to upgrade the case to the highest priority. Karlsson receives a visit from Special Branch, who attempt to blackmail her into providing information about Thomas Riffaut. Judge Roban continues to investigate the case against his colleague Garnier and finds that he has a very unlikely ally. Gilou is getting in deeper with the sinister Egyptian brothers.

Episode 6
At a top-level police meeting called when a youth is shot dead in a drive-by killing, Herville boasts that his unit is already investigating a gun-running case and will have arrests within 24 hours. Karlsson visits Riffaut’s new hideout and overhears the gang planning a kidnapping. Clement is called to a judicial review with Jorkel and the wife of Jorkel’s missing business partner. Berthaud asks Judge Roban to take on the gun-running case.

Was it any good?
This is shaping up as possibly the best season of Spiral so far, for me. It’s once more looking relatively quietly but deeply at the nature of the French justice system, its flaws, French society, crime and more, but it’s managing that while still maintaining its focus on the central characters in a way that’s previously escaped it.

This week, Tin Tin rose from the dead. Whoops. Still, I was watching on my iPad last week and I can now see that he was actually still moving after being shot in the head, a fact that escaped me last time. Ho hum. Dearie me. Sorry about that.

Tin Tin makes a lightning recovery physically after his bullet to the head, but all is not well chez Tin Tin: when everyone comes round to visit, he has a quiet cry after realising how close to death he was and that he nearly widowed his wife. This won’t be the end of it all. We’ve also had Gilou giving Laure a piece of his mind about the cock-up that nearly caused Tin Tin to die, which is rich given he was the one who caused it.

Gilou, of course, is feeling the stress of those nasty Egyptians who think he owes them either money or a favour or both. He’s once again ended up in bed with the wrong people (not literally this time), and he and probably a lot of other people are going to have to pay the price.

Interesting to note how little information Gilou is expected to record about confidential informers under French police rules. Gilou’s having far more problems because of the lack of rules than if he’d recorded everything and told people what he was up to. A cautionary tale? Let’s see.

Things are not much better with Karlsson and Clement as a result of all that secrecy either. Karlsson is being blackmailed by ‘Special Branch’ into spying on her terrorist clients or else they’ll make sure Clement’s life is a misery and they know she likes him rather a lot. Clement’s problems with the law in season three are brought up – season 4’s been a lot better at acknowledging continuity and events in previous seasons than those before it.

Does she tell Clement about it? No, making him think she’s up to no good as always. Odd how often Karlsson tries to do the right thing but ends up being blackmailed by someone into doing bad things or having sex. Special Branch are horribly misogynistic in this regard. Again, is this a common French police thing or is the show commenting on society as a whole? Je sais pas.

But I do wonder if perhaps it’s a commentary on society as whole, because we do get some admissions from both of them. Clement admits – to Laure at least – that he’s in love with Karlsson. Meanwhile, Karlsson admits that her father used to abuse her mother and that because she told the police – who turned out to be corrupt and sent her back to her family – when Jo was packed off to boarding school with her sister, her mum ended up committing suicide.

While this is the dreaded answer to “why is Karlsson the way she is?” that I was worried about, it’s a lot more nuanced than the “rape as character development” that I feared was about to happen. Karlsson is vehemently anti-police and helps even obvious bad guys because she knows the police are corrupt and are not on the side of the little people. She’s not so much evil or amoral as blindly anti-police and anti-establishment.

We also have the continuation of judge Roban’s investigations into a rape investigation by another judge, which looks to be a fit-up. Again, as per The Wire, season by season, we’re slowly moving our way up the system, watching meetings at higher and higher levels (although season 1, of course, started at the very top, but not as an analysis of the system). Now we see that the frog-eyed judge who’s been Roban’s nemesis since the beginning has feelings too, and now they’ve been hurt by his higher-ups, he’s going to help Roban, who doesn’t care about politics at all – except if it can help his friends, such as Laure who’s getting grief from her misogynistic boss, at which point he begins to excel.

Roban, of course, thinks an innocent man has been accused of rape – a travesty of justice. I had my worries about this, too, but again, the writers are doing a good job: the rape victim commits suicide when her attacker is released, so was she really lying after all? There’s a lot more to this story than was obvious and I’m intrigued to see where it’s going.

As well as all these deeper issues, the two episodes continued to advance the terrorist and Kurdish narrative, piling on tension all round. I’m unconvinced the Greek’s kidnapping plan (and what are the chances of a Greek speaking French, Greek and English fluently, BTW? Oh…) is a good one and likely to succeed, but I imagine that’s the point. Pierre’s deal with a dodgy client almost gets him shot, but it was all in a good cause, it seems. Both he and Karlsson could probably do with a few lessons in data security, particularly when it comes to locked filed cabinets and password protecting their computers, but that’s for another time, I guess. It won’t involve sticking SIM cards up bottoms, I promise.

All in all, a double-cracker all round, even if Tin Tin did prove to be The Highlander.

Subtitles: This week’s subtitles were more than a tad on the prissy side. When they could avoid swearing, they did, only dispensing swear words when it was blindingly obvious that someone was swearing. But we did end up with rather an earthy phrase from Karlsson getting translated as “Stop winding me up” and Gilou actually called someone a “blockhead”. Laure’s misogynistic boss is incredibly foul mouthed, using the p— word, its diminutive, and o— word rather a lot (French people will know what I mean), but you’d never know it from the clean-mouthed subtitles.

Slightly worse, apart from all these weird translations, is the usual ‘handy’ translation of meaning into English equivalents. All the French job titles and departments are called after their English equivalents, which could be helpful, but then you get things like ‘banlieues’ translated into ‘estates’. We’ve already had Banlieue 13, over here in the UK, so it’s not an unfamiliar word, and ‘estates’ really doesn’t convey the same meaning of almost no-man’s-land and desperate poverty that banlieues has come to mean to Parisians. I’d actually prefer it if certain words didn’t get translated at all.

  • Rullsenberg

    Ha! Well thanks for the comment about reviewing. I'm still leaving it to u the expert but appreciate the mention muchly! We are really enjoying this season as well.

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  • Babbington

    Late, yes, but for anyone who stumbles upon this review years from now, Rob's take on Spiral, while reasonably common among British reviewers, is wildly wrong.

    Spiral is not a French version of The Wire. It's not a realistic look at criminal justice in France or anywhere on planet earth. It's full of absurd conspiracies and criminals who confess when the cops have no evidence whatsoever and every other cliche you can imagine.

    It is quite good, but — while it diverges from reality in very different ways — it's about as realistic as 24.

  • Thanks for dropping by. I do kind of agree, although The Wire had its own artifice. I've also covered and agreed with most of your criticisms in the show in my reviews, predominantly in the 2nd season reviews and towards the end of the 4th season.

  • Babbington

    Aha. I'm working my way through the second season now, so I haven't read your reviews of that season yet.

    You did get me started on this show — I foolishly started on season 4 and then went back to 1 — and I thank you for the pointer. It's a very entertaining show.

    But I simply can't understand why review after review claims that it's hyperrealistic. Yes, I know it's co-written by a long-time cop, and I'm sure it gets a lot of very small details right, but the major points are escapist fantasy. Bright, educated, rich, powerful guys virtually never commit violent crimes, and they certainly don't risk their comfortable lives by covering up for those who do. Beautiful women do not get the urge to sleep with ugly men on a weekly basis, and they sure don't act upon it. Worse, women on the margins of criminal society, except for some very expensive prostitutes, are not uniformly gorgeous.

    As for The Wire, I'd agree that even it was not quite as dead real as some people believe. Like David Simon, I was a reporter who covered crime, and I've spoken to a huge number of cops and criminals in my day. Very few of them were as articulate as their counterparts from The Wire. None played chess, to my knowledge, though I did know several gang leaders who'd had some college.

    A real-life McNulty, moreover, could never exist. He would have pissed someone off about six months into his career as a patrolman and either been bounced on a technicality or, barring that, ended up in the evidence room. And Omar — wow — he's one of the less plausible characters in TV history, although one of the coolest. Avenging angels are rare in real life, as are homosexuals who command respect amongst the very non-PC urban underclass. (PC is politically correct in Yank-speak, not police constable.)

    But The Wire is still more realistic than any other show about American police work by a factor of ten. (And it is the greatest show in TV history, if you ignore the last season. Hell, season 4 has a real shot at being the greatest work of art produced anywhere this century.) Anyone who watches it will learn huge amounts about every topic it touches on — except journalism, oddly enough: anger clouded Simon's vision — and about human nature in general.

    Ah well, more of an uninvited guest post than a comment, that. I very much enjoy your blog, particularly the reviews, even when I don't agree with you.

  • I think the reason both The Wire and Engrenages are so esteemed (and perhaps incorrectly labelled as 'hyper-realistic') is that they're very good at pointing out flaws in the criminal justice systems of their own respective countries, within (and sometimes transcending) the conventions of their own TV dramas.

    I think a lot of the problems you flag up with Engrenages are the conventions of French drama. For example, you could probably write long and exciting essays on French men and their attitudes towards prostitutes and prostitution, taking in Belle du Jour (the movie) through to Maison close on Canal+, with prostitution seen as something perhaps more glamorous than in the US/UK. Into this, Engrenages fits well, while pushing at the envelope a little.

    I think it grates to a certain extent with the UK/US viewer is because we have our dramatic conventions about how prostitutes should be portrayed and what they are (and perhaps even societal differences), and that convention is more focused on the misery of it all. Which is why the book Belle de Jour, despite being written by a real prostitute, is often regarded as made up – it doesn't fit into those conventions of what we know to be true (and of course it is also atypical). Similarly with beautiful women/ugly men, a coupling which a somewhat different depiction and history in France than in the UK and US.

    I don't know what the average French viewer's impression of UK/US views of prostitution so I don't know how our fiction is received there.

    The trouble with The Wire is that it does, to a certain extent, follow dramatic conventions, although more those of books and plays than of TV, and because it's based on real-life and because if you take any given person in real-life, they'll seem atypical. A lot of The Wire's characters are based on real Baltimore people, although usually as composites of more than two people, so seem slightly unrealistic in that regard, even though a lot of Baltimore viewers knew exactly who the real people were when they were watching, they were so close.

    The other problem is that real life is dull. Drama is real life with the dull bits taken out. For people to want to watch drama, it is has to be interesting (as anyone who's watched something like Rubicon should know – the most realistic US spy show in TV history. Also the most boring for 10 episodes after which it's brilliant.)

    So my guess at what is probably the most realistic cop show ever is Dragnet. Would anyone still want to watch Dragnet in this television environment?

    Thanks for dropping by and do feel free to keep commenting!

  • Mark Carroll

    Hmmm, I never saw Dragnet. I'm still looking for an opportunity to get to see Rubicon.