After enduring years of indifference and even scorn, the quality of French television fiction is now widely accepted in the United States. Series such as The Returned, Spiral and Braquo paved the way for French series to find audiences abroad. Inspired by the well-crafted screenplays, hard-hitting dialogues and credible fictional worlds, other productions quickly followed suite. The result is a rise in French series on the American market, and a gradual move away from the corny image they have born for so long.
“The change was sparked by the French television industry realizing how important it was to develop their screenwriting,” says François Truffart, director of the Colcoa French Film Festival, which showcases some 100 French films and series in Los Angeles every year in late April. “Television was long seen as a by-product of cinema in France. But that has completely changed today. There is a high demand for quality, and French series have had to match up to the standards of their competitors.”
French series also focused on production as well as improving their screenwriting. New seasons now roll around faster, and the offer has diversified to include crime shows, fantasy adventures, family fictions, and of course the mini-series and one-off TV-films that often tackle powerful social themes. “French television fiction has retained its atypical style in terms of content and how it approaches its subjects,” says the Colcoa director. “This is a real advantage because U.S. audiences are constantly bombarded with series, and so are eager to discover something new.”
The burgeoning number of channels and the explosion of digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have also sped up the movement. In the race to find unique, new shows, U.S. operators and distributors tend to turn increasingly to the international scene. British series have naturally enjoyed a solid presence across American networks for decades, but Israel has also become a respected new player, followed recently by the Scandinavian countries. France is now well-placed to rise to the top of the rankings. The success of Marseille, the first original French series to be produced by Netflix, and the recent inauguration of the streaming giant’s Paris headquarters last January prove it!
1. The Bureau (Le Bureau des légendes)
With 3.7 million euros generated abroad, The Bureau is the world’s most exported French series. Originally broadcast on the encrypted French channel Canal+, this original creation by Eric Rochant (who brought us the series Mafiosa) has successfully reinvented the spy fiction genre. The series tells the story of how the DGSE (the Direction Général de la Sécurité Externe, the French equivalent of the CIA) trains and remotely guides its leading operatives, known as “clandestine agents.” Posted undercover in hostile territories, they are tasked with identifying people who could be recruited as intelligence sources. Working undercover with completely false identities, they spend many years living in a state of constant secrecy. The series begins with the return to France of one such agent, Guillaume Debailly — aka Malotru — played by Mathieu Kassovitz (Amélie). Ignoring security regulations, he chooses not to abandon the identity he maintained for six years in Syria, and threatens to endanger the entire system… Expertly linked to current events and starring a flawless cast (including excellent actors such as Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Léa Drucker, Sara Giraudeau, and Gilles Cohen), The Bureau offers a shrewd combination of thriller and drama in an antithetical version of the James Bond franchise. Available in the United States via iTunes, the series has been lauded by U.S. critics. The New York Times described it as an “subtle, intelligent fiction,” while BroadwayWorld called it “a riveting spy story told with psychological sophistication and cinematic flare.” The series’ creators are now working on a French-American project in partnership with HBO.
2. Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent)
The “professional” series has become a genre in its own right, with classic settings including legal firms, hospitals, and police precincts. In an attempt to revolutionize the genre, Call my Agent! takes audiences into the world of a Parisian talent firm — a milieu that has had little public exposure until now. The series is inspired by the life of co-producer Dominique Besnehard, who spent more than 20 years as one of the leading agents for the French cinema industry, and has quickly shot to success. Driven by screenwriter Fanny Herrero (who previously co-wrote the series A French Village, available in the U.S. on Hulu) and director Cédric Klapisch (The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls, Chinese Puzzle), the series follows the daily trials and tribulations of four agents working to try to land the best roles and highest fees for their actors, or “talents,” while also standing in as their shrinks and indulging their every whim. A tragicomedy diving headfirst into the merciless world of celebrity, where you have to laugh to keep from crying… Each episode features a film star (including Cécile de France, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche, and Christophe Lambert) who all play themselves with a generous helping of self-deprecation. Managing to avoid cliquey, elitist pitfalls, Call my Agent! is a popular series as hard-hitting as it is accessible. The viewer numbers on Netflix speak for themselves: The series is one of the most-watched international fictions.
3. Baron Noir
“The best French political series ever produced”; “A masterful, addictive fiction”; “The perfect mix of House of Cards and The Sopranos!” Taking critics and audiences by storm when it was broadcast on Canal+ back in 2016, the series Baron Noir was quickly spotted and acquired by Amazon Prime Video. The series portrays Philippe Rickwaert (played by Kad Merad, Marseille, The Chorus), a congressman and mayor in Northern France and the assistant to the socialist candidate in the French presidential elections, Francis Laugier (Niels Arestrup, A Prophet, The French Minister). Beleaguered by a financial scandal, Laugier sacrifices his right-hand man to save his own campaign. Despite alrea-dy imagining himself in Matignon, Rickwaert becomes the black sheep of the party, the “black baron.” The humiliated politician is forced to constantly reinvent his career to survive, pitting himself against his old friend and new arch nemesis by forging an alliance with his former mentor’s closest advisor (Anna Mouglalis, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Romanzo Criminale). Baron Noir is inspired by the experiences of its co-screenwriter Eric Benzekri, a former speech writer for the French socialist party, and offers a highly realistic portrayal of daily political life in France without ever losing the audience’s attention or interest. Aside from its political aspects Baron Noir is above all the story of a thwarted friendship, and the journey of two “brothers” hell-bent on destroying one another in a journey through the most intimate recesses of the political world.