French lessons


Spiral/Engrenages 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011

By Peter Hulm

One benefit of watching TV from other countries is seeing how peculiar your own culture is. Dismissed at first by Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent as a routine cop series, Spiral/Engrenages became a major export success for French television, with sales to over 70 countries. Gaining just 200,000 viewers on BBC at first, it is now being given its fifth season. Plus ça change...

It's hard to imagine any British cop series taking as jaundiced a view of the justice system as Engrenages/Spiral. Venal, corrupt and egotistically ambitious lawyers, drug-addicted police officers involved with prostitutes and media-obsessed bosses, investigating magistrates whose efforts at justice are thwarted by their superiors — this might remind you of The Wire.

What makes Spiral different is the way in which each of these characters is caught in the failings of the system. Caroline Proust and Thierry Godard as the police officers, Grégory Fitoussi and Audrey Fleurot as the lawyers, and Philippe Duclos as the examining magistrate are seen to pay the price for their efforts to steer the treacherous shallows of the French political system.

The Wire vs Spiral vs Luther

The Wire took each of the constituents of the broken U.S. system in turn — policing drugs, work places, education, politics, the media — and bound them together in a thoroughgoing denunciation of the betrayal of young (particularly black) Americans.

Spiral takes as its social targets East European sex worker exploitation, arms trafficking, local authority corruption, the French old-boy political system, and student extremism.

These themes seem much more ripped from the day's French headlines (and sometimes were) than The Wire's equally well-grounded reportage from the streets of 1990s Baltimore.

Compare this to Luther, one of the few socially aware British cop series. It ran itself into the ground concentrating on sociopathic crimes rather than exploring the world of police and society in Britain.

Outstanding actors

True, Spiral itself seemed stuck in violent opening scenes to get the drama going, but the gruesome beginnings were largely borne out by the grisliness of the stories behind them.

I don't remember seeing in any cop series as conflicted a character as Fleurot portrays. She's a brilliant, beautiful lawyer (gaming the French system) who gets involved with a weasely barred lawyer and then an outright crook to pull herself out of debt.

Fitoussi, who finds himself at the mercy of a criminal university pal turned businessman, is fascinated by Fleurot, even knowing her unscrupulousness. His male-model looks only underline the failings in his character: he wants the alpha female no matter how dangerous.

Proust gives us a definitive portrait of an obsessive female cop for whom only the job counts (we learn why later in the series). Scruffy, deliberately unsentimental in her sexual relations but fiercely loyal to her colleagues, her life is a mess and her professional standing is also taking a hit. No Luther-like toughing it out alone. The cost of doing police work is real.

Some caveats

Investigating magistrate Philippe Duclos is the only idealized character. But it's hard not to root for him as he gets into all kinds of trouble because of his concern with justice rather than the judicial system.

Spiral's not perfect. Too many scenes of S.W.A.T. raids and cars driving around Paris for my taste. But perhaps that's what policing means to French viewers. And little concern about the minutiae of police procedures (compare Line of Duty). Do French police really spend so little time on paperwork?

But as a picture of a society where even the most horrific crime somehow links in to the rest of society, it can't be bettered. No Tour Eiffel or Champs Elysées to remind us this is the City of Light. Instead we see the grotty high-rises of the outer city slums and the underpasses of the prostitutes' haunts. "Users" (imdb's term for its addicts) gave it an 8.4 rating.


The question is: when is a British or U.S, channel going to take on the social system for using police, lawyers and judges to reinforce its corrupt operations? The Wire, for all its social concern, treated the cops and criminals as part of an entrepreneurial system.

Luther teased us with hints at a wider concern. His estranged wife was a human rights lawyer, His best buddy got involved with criminals. The sociopathic genius killer was a particle physicist. One serial killer was a soldier back from anti-Islamic duties. But these trails never led anywhere except towards personal dramas.

To a TV viewer who never watches foreign television, this might seem natural. After Spiral it looks like a cop-out.

And we think French TV is much more subservient than the British to the political powers-that-be. Nevertheless, the picture that its popular culture paints of society's workings is much less benign than television in Britain wants us to believe, both in the capacity to work the system and the price of trying to fight it.

Let's hear it for The Good Wife

Spiral's only current rival from this standpoint is The Good Wife, which as early as 2012 focused on Bitcoin. Its plots have also dealt with company machinations to avoid insurance claims, collective action by white-collar workers, sport injuries and more.

The mainspring of its personal drama, as the creators have said, comes from seeing politicians' wife standing po-faced beside their husbands as the men confess their marital transgressions.

This has proved a more interesting theme than it first appeared (lots of pained expressions from Julianna Margulies as good wife Alicia Florick). In the fourth season Alicia showed more personality and willingness to take charge of her personal (and professional) life — a significant character development that is beautifully underplayed by Margulies. The children of the marriage, too, are growing up in more interesting ways than Don Draper's in Mad Men.

It may lack The Wire's conviction that all the chicanery works together in American life, but it does a good job of explaining how the fragmentary news that drifts across our screens reflects larger forces. On second viewing, when the personal drama does not loom so large and you can concentrate on the public issues, The Good Wife plays even better than the first time.