“You gotta watch the last season of Engrenages!” enthused a friend who Zoomed me last week. “But you hate French TV series,” I said. “Yeah,” she replied, “but this one’s exceptionnel.” The show – a gritty, nuanced police procedural and legal thriller, marketed internationally as Spiral – has been a huge success. And not just in France. U.S. critics have hailed it as “a peerless Policier” that’s “dark, compelling, and utterly French.” In reality, Engrenages is just one of a raft of séries françaises that have been wowing critics and audiences everywhere.
What’s surprising is that so many people seem surprised at this impressive performance. It’s true that France was not particularly renowned for cutting-edge television series. In the past, even Le Monde, the highbrow newspaper of record, regularly lamented this lack of creativity. Quoting a (perfidious) British journalist, it once asked why a country with such an excellent movie industry had never managed to produce anything matching the quality of U.S. fare, such as Desperate Housewives.
Truth be told, television in general and series in particular were long considered by the French to be the unfashionable younger siblings of cinema, revered as le septième art. Directors and actors would give TV drama and comedy a wide berth, fearing their artistic credentials might be tarnished by a dalliance with popular entertainment. Long-running feuilletons, such as Commissaire Moulin, with their drawn-out episodes and sluggish pace, were the staple for decades. Back in the pre-cable and pre-internet era, the choice of viewing was limited to a handful of state-run channels headed by people often appointed for political affiliation rather than inventive flair. So the choice of material and formats was unadventurous, to say the least. (If in doubt, try watching some of the 44 two-hour episodes of Messieurs les jurés. You’ll see what I mean.)
To fuel the TV pipeline, a few series were co-produced with French-speaking countries such as Belgium. But many were imported from the U.S. For French viewers in the early 1980s, the archetypal American TV series was Dallas, the Texan oil opera which first aired on the public channel TF1. At the time, the show and its setting – not to mention the hats and hairstyles – were so unfamiliar that TF1 execs decided to put a lyric to the original theme tune (Dallas ! Ton univers impitoyable !), supposedly to “clarify the concept.” It was Dallas and other imports, like Arabesque (Murder She Wrote), The A-Team (retitled L’Agence tous risques) and Starsky and Hutch (pronounced Starskee ay ‘Eutch), that entertained undemanding audiences for decades.
To be fair, educated American viewers also used to consider series as movies’ poorer cousins. But then came a string of groundbreaking shows, often developed by pay-TV channels, that heralded a new, golden era of small-screen drama. Two in particular were game-changers: The Sopranos, which set the standard for quality TV series, and the Prohibition-era crime drama Boardwalk Empire. Boardwalk’s pilot was helmed by Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, proving that television had been embraced as a serious artistic medium by top-tier American auteurs. Instead of condensing stories into the traditional 90-minute, three-act arc, filmmakers could take their time and probe deeper into characters and emotional journeys.
In France, too, the baton was passed to a new generation of creative people. Young writers and directors were producing grittier, more realistic material aimed at younger and more demanding audiences brought up on American and British productions. (This was probably when the term un feuilleton made way for une série in everyday French.) An important part of this generational shift was the realization that scriptwriting for series had become an art form in its own right. So, this being France, official training programs were set up to school budding scénaristes.
The results were quietly impressive. One early success was Un village français (A French Village), which examined the complexities of France under Nazi occupation. Using the prism of a small-village community, it dealt quietly but unflinchingly with issues French society had struggled for decades to address. Another hit, released in 2012, was the supernatural drama Les Revenants, which gave a distinctly Gallic flavor to the well-worn trope of the undead returning to life. Little by little, title by title, and genre by genre – Maison close was set in a 19th-century Parisian bawdy house and described as Baudelaire meets the Playboy Channel – the French series industry came of age.
Many of these productions have retained the unhurried pace typical of classic French cinema, but explore their themes in inventive, often surprising ways. Ways that are both familiar yet fresh to audiences weaned on American fare: Engrenages is The Shield revisited by Maupassant. The comedy-drama Dix pour cent (Call My Agent! – the French title references the fee that agents charge their clients) is Fight for Fame written by Yasmina Reza. And Baron noir, a realistic political drama, is The West Wing with 24’s Charles Logan replacing Jed Bartlet. The latest smash hit, released on Netflix in January, is Lupin, which riffs on the gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin created by novelist Maurice Leblanc in the early 20th century, and cleverly updates the setting to 21st-century France. Featuring Intouchables star Omar Sy, Lupin quickly became Netflix’s second most popular title and the first French series to go straight into its top 10.
Of course, you can’t have the show without the business. Many of these productions have been sold on to other countries and networks (more than 70 for Engrenages); others are being adapted for audiences as far afield as Japan. It’s this virtuous circle of national adaptations that is the most compelling aspect. For instance, En thérapie, which follows a psychoanalyst treating patients traumatized by the Bataclan terror attacks, is adapted from the original Israeli series BeTipul, previously remade for U.S. audiences as In Treatment. Likewise, American audiences have watched The Returned, possibly unaware that it was a retread of Les Revenants. Who knows? Arsène Lupin, renamed Artie Wolf, may shortly be coming to a small screen near you.
Article published in the March 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.