In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, Fox
Over the past few years, a new trend has started to emerge in television drama: the overseas cop show. Now, in a sense this is nothing new: The Persuaders! and other shows all filmed in exotic locales in the 70s and even earlier shows such as The Man From Interpol had been set overseas, even if they’d never actually gone there for filming.
But the new trend, seen in the likes of Wallander, Zen and Falcón, has English-speaking actors playing other nationalities in overseas locations. Wallander had Ken Branagh, Tom Hiddleston and sundry other Brits being quintessentially British while pretending to be Swedish, while Rufus Sewell got to drink lots of espressos in Italy in Zen, and Marton Csokas and Hayley Hatwell were as English-sounding as can be while solving crimes and romancing each other in Barcelona in Falcón.
France’s TF1, meanwhile, is looking to be a bit of an international player at the moment and, taking this trend on board, has gone one step further: rather than wait for some foreign broadcaster to start shooting a French cop show with English-speaking actors, it’s decided to do it itself and get a whole bunch of international actors over to Paris, get them all to fake American accents (except for the Americans, obviously) in a ‘quintessentially French’ cop show, and then sell the results to the rest of the world through the Fox International channel. It also managed to recruit famous French film star Jean Reno (The Professional/Leon) in his first lead TV role as the eponymous Jo of the series’ title – a cop in the famous Brigade Criminelle (what Spiral calls ‘the crime squad’) with more than a few issues. On top of that, they got in as show runner René Balcer, the creator of TF1’s late 90s cop show Mission Protection Rapprochée and Paris enquêtes criminelles, the French version of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Unfortunately, they also got French production company Atlantique Productions to make it. To be fair, Atlantique has been around for 30 years, making English-language productions such as Deadly Nightmares (aka The Hitchhiker), Death in Paradise and Counterstrike, not to mention Borgia for Canal+ and Transporter: The TV Series. What TF1 failed to notice was that largely, these programmes are all rubbish.
Here’s a trailer for Jo. We can talk more after the break – spoilers ahoy!
From the Emmy® winning executive producer of Law & Order comes JO, a thrilling new crime drama starring legend of French and Hollywood cinema, Jean Reno.
Jo St-Clair is a veteran detective in Paris’s elite Criminal Brigade, tackling the city’s most challenging murder cases. All the while, his personal life is as challenging and dangerous as the cases he solves.
St-Clair is partnered with rookie detective Bayard, a good looking, college-educated cop whose by-the-book approach stands in marked contrast to St-Clair’s lone-wolf methods.
Supervising them is the tough-minded boss, Commisaire Dormont, who has suffered a long tumultuous history with Saint- Clair.
Brilliant and brutal, St-Clair matches wits with pathological killers to solve a series of shocking murders: a supermodel thrown off the Eiffel Tower; a young heiress brutalised during a sexual romp at the Hôtel de Crillon; a high-end jeweller burned to death on Place Vendôme.
Is it any good?
No. It’s practically unwatchable. And I’ll tell you for why.
The trend in “overseas cop shows” is based, essentially, around one country’s TV network making a TV show according to its own standards and according to what it thinks people in its country will want to watch. To a certain extent, that includes stereotypes about that country’s people – no one wanted to watch Falcón because he’s a great Manchester United fan, for example, but because he likes to watch bullfights and Wallander is a great big misery guts, rather than a cheery, jovial sort – although many will try to avoid those stereotypes because they fear being seen as or even merely being racist
But when you start making TV shows with the aim of giving an international market what it wants, you have to second guess what other nations might like about you, while simultaneously guessing what they might like to see in a TV show. That’s a lot of second-guessing, and with Jo, that’s a lot of mis-guessing, at least as far as the UK is concerned.
Part of the problem, for one thing, is that we’re getting the raw version. Where the show has already been successful – Italy, Belgium – it’s been a dubbed version.
Dubbing has allowed those countries to correct a lot of the dreadful dialogue, which seems to have been through Google Translate to get to us from writers who aren’t native English speakers – Reno compliments one woman on her silk blouse at one point, she replies that ‘you have to feel the material to appreciate its quality’. Everyone laughs, except the audience, who wonder WTF is going on. I probably understand more from that Italian clip than the corresponding scene in English, and I only took Italian classes for three months.
Dubbing also fixes another of the show’s biggest problems: the accents. Despite everyone more or less being British (or at least not American, since there’s at least one Canadian involved), the cast has been ordered to speak with a single generic American accent. Everyone except Reno, that is, who’s frequently incomprehensible in his French-accented English. This makes Jo “American cops in Paris solving crimes”, which is even more bizarre than “Brits in Spain”, “Brits in Italy”, etc, since we’re all used to British accents being the defaults for foreigners in every US TV series and movie.
The other big problem is what the French seem to think we like in a French TV production. Now, that’s clearly not French people being authentically French in the same way that Canal+’s Spiral or Braquo offer. Instead, it’s Reno’s character being all French clichés at once: he’s an alcoholic cop who doesn’t play by the rules, who’s best friends with a nun and who had a teenage daughter with a prostitute whom he told to have an abortion when he found out she was pregnant. That’s too much ‘Frenchness’ in one man to be possible.
With the makers also determined to show off famous Paris locations, each episode being based around a particular landmark, that means a ridiculous amount of time spent around Notre Dame in the first episode for no good reason, as if Woody Allen had shot the whole thing. Do we want to see this? I think not. People who watch international TV tend to be smart enough to know that murders don’t tend to happen near national landmarks, any more than anyone dives to their deaths from Big Ben in the UK.
With Jo having so much personality, everyone else has been turned into soul-free automata, moving through plot cliché after cliché as the script demands, with no personalities of their own. We have a generic young cop, generic black woman cop, generic white woman cop and generic pathologist. They all perform exactly the same roles as their equivalents in Wallander, say, but without real stories of their own. Couple that with the dreadful dialogue and you get a cast of people who irritate rather than engross, who slide across screen and off again, leaving as much trace as a French perfume.
All of that might be manageable if the stories were good. But the scripts mine every other cop show out there for ideas that were old decades ago. With everyone involved on the production side clearly not speaking English well enough to understand the required pacing of the story, either, the first episode whips along at such a speed and without any concern for the niceties of the plot, you’d be hard pressed to know why anyone was doing anything. You’ll find yourself coming out of every scene, asking yourself, “What just happened? Why did he do that? What’s going on?”
Jo probably could have been a good show with a French cast, speaking French and with a French production team onboard; it would have been an even better show if the production team had considered what would have been a good show for a French audience and just let the rest of the world see a dubbed or subtitled version and be damned. As it is, it’s the kind of Highlander– and Transporter-level quality that has given international co-productions such a sterling reputation.