Le bureau des légendes
French TV

Third-episode verdict: Le Bureau Des Légendes (The Bureau) (France: Canal+; UK: Amazon Instant Video)

In France: Broadcast on Canal+ in 2015
In the UK: Available on Amazon Instant Video

Walter has been napping. Supposedly watching hours of foreign-language TV every week to find the best shows from around the world for Channel 4, somehow he managed to avoid watching any of Canal+’s 2015 output – despite Canal+ officially being France’s good TV channel. That means Amazon have had the chance to poach Canal+’s Le Bureau Des Légendes (The Bureau) from out of Walter’s hands. Oops.

In that curious way these things happen, we’ve coincidentally been talking a lot about both verisimilitude and spy shows in the past couple of weeks, taking in along the way both Legends and The Night Manager. The latter is the epitome of modern British spy shows, departing from the glorious semi-realistic days of Callan, The Sandbaggers, et al to give us nonsensical, cliched but glossy affairs that convince almost no one.

Fortunately, France seems to remember how to do a decent spy show, judging by Le Bureau Des Légendes. Set in the undercover section of France’s equivalent of MI6, the DGES, it sees Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) playing a top undercover operative who’s been working in Damascus for the past six years. He’s mysteriously summoned back to Paris at short notice, where very quickly problems emerge with ‘Cyclone’, the DGES’ top operative in Algeria. A devout Muslim, Cyclone is nevertheless mysteriously arrested for drink-driving and is taken away by Algerian police, before promptly disappearing. Has he been rumbled as a spy or has he been turned and engineered his own disappearance?

In common with its stable-mate at Canal+, Engrenages (Spiral), there are multiple wheels turning within wheels in Le Bureau Des Légendes. Despite being ordered to break off all ties with her, Kassovitz invites his married lover from Damascus (Zineb Triki) to visit him in Paris. His superiors wonder whether he has ‘Post Mission Disorder’ and can’t shake off his old life. But more importantly, Triki might have secrets of her own that jeopardise Kassovitz.

At the same time and seemingly unrelated to the main plot, Kassovitz is training up a new operative (Sara Giraudeau) to go undercover in Iran. There’s also a new psychiatrist (Léa Drucker) monitoring everyone and Kassovitz has to deal with his now grown-up teenage daughter, whom he left without explanation. And there’s a bunch of French spies out in the Sahara somewhere who are definitely up to something, but by the end of the third episode, may themselves not know what that is. Just to make everything even less clear, the third episode is told in flashback while Kassovitz is attached to a lie detector – all without explanation.

How it all fits together I suspect is something that will get revealed by the end of the season, but it’s merely happy to set up the puzzles in these first few episodes.

In common with the likes of The Sandbaggers, the show is admirably concerned with realism and tradecraft. Although it occasionally uses the likes of Drucker and Giraudeau to Basil Exposition everything to us, it does do its best to give us a look at how spies probably work and approach security in the 21st century in a way that most other shows ignore. Mobile phones are banned in the Bureau in case of remote exploits turning them into listening devices and operatives have to clean their own desks so that no one who doesn’t ‘need to know’ needs to enter the Bureau. But that’s basic compared to things like mapping mobile phone signals and using behaviour analysis of the data to get an indication of likely events.

As you might expect from the double meaning of bureau/office, also in common with The Sandbaggers, this is a show that’s mostly about talking and office work. Big chunks of it are people sitting around discussing what precious information they have from far away can mean, as well as internal and external politics with other agencies, divisions, superiors and allies. Although the second episode does give us a car chase of sorts through central Paris, it ends as a car chase in central Paris probably would end, rather than à la The Bourne Identity‘s. The show also does have the occasional moment of humour, such as an odd little side-plot in the third episode involving a mouse getting into the Bureau and Drucker’s analysis of her superior’s multi-coloured tie.

Linguistically, there are fun things going on in the French that for once, the subtitles actually do a jolly decent job of conveying, but occasionally miss out on. I quite liked the French ‘faire le ménage’ (to do the housework) being used to mean ‘remove anything incriminating from the house’, for example, but that gets translated as ‘clean the house’, which sort of works but not quite. More entertainingly, all the codenames for undercover operatives are derived from insults and expletives used by Captain Haddock in the French-language Tin Tin comics. But as befits such a globally-focused show, there’s plenty of Arabic and the occasional bit of English, too.

It’s not 100% realistic. While there’s some admirable computer expertise behind the scenes, for some reason everyone in France uses the same Windows XP installation, no matter where they work. It also seems unlikely that anyone who’d been undercover for six years would have been so senior or so readily accepted back into the fold.

But Le Bureau Des Légendes is certainly the best spy show I’ve seen this year and the first French show in quite some time that I’ve actually wanted to boxset (sorry, Marseille). There have already been two seasons in France, and a third is on the way, so give it a go if you can.

Barrometer rating: 1
Would it be better with a female lead? Yes, but is that ever going to happen in France?
TMINE’s prediction: N/A

Here’s a French-language trailer, but if you want one with subtitles, you’ll need to go here, although there are a few spoilers from after the first three episodes by the looks of it.

Question of the week: what are the merits of sadness in drama?

As Sally Sparrow once said, “Sad is happy for deep people.” And indeed, there have been a whole load of miserable plays, TV programmes, films et al designed for smart people: I love Se7en (as a quote in the introduction to the BFI book on the movie says – or was it one of the special edition DVD commentaries? – “Of course I love Se7en – I’m an intellectual”), for example, and Callan and The Sandbaggers are so brilliant because they’re so bleak. Think of Turn Left and Midnight in the latest series of Doctor Who, as well as the fate of Donna in Journey’s End: better for bleak, no?

Over the last year, though, there’s been an increase in sad TV programmes on the Beeb: Wallander, The Day of the Triffids, Survivors, Paradox, Criminal Justice et al have all been deeply miserable. As Paradox shows, being miserable doesn’t mean being good, but does it help – the bleaker moments of Paradox were its best bits.

So today’s question (in parts) is:

Does being depressed, sad or miserable increase the chances of a show being good? Is sad happy for deep people? Are TV shows getting more depressing of late (thanks to the recession maybe?) And do you like watching sad shows?

As always, leave a comment with your answer or a link to your answer on your own blog.


Review: The Fixer 2×1-2×2

The Fixer

In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, ITV1 (except Scotland)

Good drama – good anything – is hard to find on ITV1 these days (even harder in Scotland, where STV is failing to carry almost any of ITV1’s programmes). Yet there are a few standouts, usually in the crime genre. The Fixer is one such standout. It features Andrew Buchan as a former SAS soldier, recruited by a shadowy branch of the police to do its very, very dirty work, usually involving murder but also resorting to other unpleasantries that are in no way legal. With a chav idiot sidekick and a hard as nails, unmovable boss, The Fixer is basically Callan for the 21st century.

Series one of The Fixer was properly classed as very good, rather than excellent. It came perilously close to excellent at times, but despite being an action show, it had very little action, it exhibited quite phenomenal amounts of misogyny at times, it veered towards the cliché and the occasionally silly, and Tamzin Outhwaite was pretty much there as a name to draw in an audience, rather than because she had anything to do.

Series two, which opened with a two-part story, seems to have spotted these problems and done its level best to fix them, because despite a slightly flat and occasionally bizarre opening episode, the second episode managed to pile on the suspense and action in bucketloads.

At last!

Here’s a promo – and yes, that is Mr Darcy from Lost in Austen as an evil member of the security services – followed by the first 10 minutes of the first episode of series one, just so you have an idea of what’s going on if you missed it: you can watch the rest on YouTube or DVD if you want.

Continue reading “Review: The Fixer 2×1-2×2”

Classic TV

Weird old title sequences: Callan


In the discussions that some people have about which is the best ever spy TV series – and sometimes even best ever TV series – the competition among the cognoscenti and connoisseurs usually takes in two shows: The Sandbaggers and Callan.

The two have much in common and it’s often just a question of taste as to which comes out top. Both deal with the world of British intelligence. Both are very gritty, featuring some of the unpleasant harshness faced by spies on the front line of the cold war. Both feature ruthless bosses and more compassionate agents.

While The Sandbaggers was more interested in the politics and the intrigues surrounding spy work, however, Callan was more interested in its effects on people and the the kind of people who become involved in spy work. It featured future Equalizer Edward Woodward as ‘David Callan’ (not his real name), an ex-soldier and quiet, ordinary working class man who would have been quite happy to have been a clerk and play war games with toy soldiers at the weekend.

However, he – and British intelligence’s dirty tricks department ‘The Section’ – finds himself to be singularly qualified for one thing: being a killer for the state. Although he has to indulge in other unpleasantness, such as blackmail, breaking and entering, torture, theft and more, Callan’s true skills lie in inflicting pain and shooting people, something he’s reluctant to do but knows that if he ever quit his job, he’d find himself in one of The Section’s ‘red files’, just like all his victims.

Although the plots are usually nail-biting, most of the intrigue is in the character relationships and what they tell us about spies and intelligence work in general. We see the difference between Callan and his two colleagues – posh psychopath Meres (Anthony Valentine) and dandy-esque hard man Cross (Patrick Mower), who are both far happier to do as they’re told, no matter what it involves. We also see how he deals with his ever-changing series of bosses, all of whom are given the soubriquet ‘Hunter’. The relationship, however, is always of the upper class boss, remote from the effects of the decisions that the defiant working class Callan has to implement. There’s also Callan’s best friend, Lonely, a petty thief, whom Callan uses and abuses in his work.

The show is also well known for its famous, iconic title sequence (hence today’s blog entry), with its sad, down-at-heel theme tune. Queue the swinging light bulb:

I’ve also included this little gem of a scene from the first episode of the third series, Where Else Could I Go? (the first one in colour), in which Callan, just returning to duty after having been shot by Meres at the end of the second series for shooting the previous ‘Hunter’, finds the new Hunter unsure whether Callan is up to the job any more or whether he’s lost his killer instinct and become a ‘gutless wonder’. The entire episode revolves around Hunter’s manipulation of Callan and the people around him to see if he can be pushed into regaining his aggressive tendencies. Notably, it’s only when best pal Lonely starts pushing Callan around as well that Callan finally snaps and becomes his old self:

You can still get the third and fourth series on DVD (the third has just been released in the US), but the superb first two black and white series are incomplete and unavailable (unless you know where to look). Double O Section has a review of the third series DVD that should give you an even fuller analysis of the wonders of Callan


The TV writer’s voice: should it be different or the same?

David Mamet

Today’s TV musing is about writers. Now it can’t have escaped your notice but fiction doesn’t emerge fully formed from the sea onto our TV screens – there are these people called writers who create all the words and deeds depicted in dramas, comedies and even some ‘reality’ TV shows.

No two writers are the same, of course, each usually having their own ‘voice’ – a way of writing dialogue, a way of developing and introducing characters, a way of plotting that is unique to them. But on a TV show, that isn’t always a good thing.

On a serial or long-running show, sometimes you don’t want individual writers’ scripts to stand out from the others; you want them all more or less the same because you have ongoing character arcs, back story, established forms of behaviour for the protagonists and so on. If a writer’s script stands out, it’s probably because it’s inconsistent with the other episodes, which you don’t usually want.

On many TV shows, there is a special role specifically for making sure scripts all mesh together nicely. In the UK, that’s the script editor; in the US, it’s usually the ‘show runners’ or exec producers – who unlike their film counterparts are typically writers who have ascended the career ladder.

Of course, there can be problems when the script editor/exec producer also writes scripts, because there’s no one there to check their work for consistency and because they typically give themselves more latitude than they do to other writers. It’s not always the case: you’d be hard-pressed to work out which Lost scripts are by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, which Mad Men scripts are by Matthew Weiner.

But take The Unit, for example. One of the exec producers on that is David Mamet. Yes, the David Mamet – the award-winning playwright and screenwriter who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-plow, The Verdict and Wag The Dog, to name but a few classics. Who’s going to edit his stuff, let alone himself?

So whenever Mamet writes a script for The Unit, it’s always massively at odds with all the other scripts and contains an overload of his usual obsessions (martial arts, con tricks, overly manly behaviour). Surprisingly, they’re never as good as the scripts by the other producers, sister Lynn Mamet and Eric L Haney, on whose book the show was based.

Callan is another show that comes to mind. Creator James Mitchell resolutely refused to acknowledge there had been any character development in between his contributions to the four series, so whenever he wrote a script, every character immediately reverted back to the behaviours and relationships they’d exhibited in the original pilot play.

Yet there are some shows where different voices are tolerated and allowed. Take Doctor Who. Although show runner/exec producer Russell T Davies can rewrite up to 60% of a script created by one of the other writers, you can still usually tell when Gareth Roberts or Steven Moffat is writing the week’s episode – or when it’s one of his own. And that’s actually a great delight.

So today’s question: how much should individual writers’ voices be heard on TV shows – does it depend on the type of show and is the reason it’s tolerated on some shows because there are only a few decent writers on the show and we just notice when there are some good episodes for a change?