The most shocking development on television this year was not the BBC’s Olympic coverage, although it was difficult to be without kayaking around the clock. It wasn’t the end of either. Course of action, with its ominous implication that the series could go on forever without ever finding the last of the twisted brass. Or Emilie in Paris be nominated for the Emmy for “Best Comedy”.
No, the only real chilling realization was that the French make better television than we do. The best comedy of recent years is probably Call my agent, which stars Camille Cottin as a talent agent forced to dig her stars, played by real-life actors, from increasingly ridiculous scratches while dealing with their own chaotic personal lives. This is French.
The best thriller of recent years is without a doubt Office – in his country of origin The Legends Office – a gripping spy drama in which characters travel the world protecting national interests while managing their own chaotic personal lives. In his portrayal of the technology, the double crossing, and the harsh realpolitik of modern espionage, he’s closer to the spirit of Le Carré than anything we’ve achieved lately, including adaptations of Le Carré. It is also French.
Then there is Lupine, Netflix’s pleasantly fun detective film starring the magnetic Omar Sy as a thief gentleman, based on the classic Maurice Leblanc novels, which has reached 70 million homes worldwide. And Missions, the French drama on a mission to Mars, which, over two seasons of surprisingly short half-hour episodes, has grown into something much more complex and subtle than it first appeared. Do not forget Spiral, which ended on BBC Four earlier this year after 15 years. As the vineyards of Sussex and Hampshire begin to produce sparkling wine to drink, the French are putting on some believable crime shows and some really funny comedies. The land of Godard and Truffaut has no problem with films, but until recently seems to have struggled conceptually with the small screen. As a French friend said, “You wouldn’t believe the shit we had to put up with.”
What is going on? Of Midsomer Murders and Top speed To Peppa Pig, TV was supposed to be one of the great British cultural exports. I thought there was some sort of tacit agreement. We would leave the Europeans to their opera, their theater, their poetry, their novels and their three-hour dementia films. In return, we do TV, pop music and Potter. Instead, we find ourselves here not only delighted to see the tanks on our lawn, but we invite the drivers for a cup of tea.
Part of this is due to streaming services, whose ever-vigilant algorithms can sift through the best of the world’s television and stream it straight to your bed. In previous years you could only watch something like Call my agent if one of the British channels decides to receive it. Most likely, it would have sneaked onto the BBC Four at midnight on a Tuesday, a treat for real chefs. Now it’s pushed right in our faces. You like Chip bag, you say? Get a load of this. In the case of Lupine, which has a British showrunner (and has received mixed reviews in France), there is another example of Netflix’s apparent attempt to have a featured production in every territory of the world, as a sort of semi-content monster. – benevolent gigantic. Fauda from Israel, Money theft from Spain, The kingdom from South Korea. Watching with subtitles is a nasty bug, as customers of those cinemas with canapes and wine have known for years. Once you’ve enjoyed a thriller in one foreign language, you’ll likely enjoy it in another.
But the French also studied the dark arts of British and American series. They looked at Antoine Soprano’s struggles and realized that if they could come up with something that was half as good, there was the potential to whip it around the world. Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays the enigmatic Bondalike Malotru in Office, embodies the change of mood. Internationally, he is best known as a writer-director of the years 1995 Hate then as the love interest in the 2001 film Amelie. A gritty author’s play set in the suburbs, followed by a cutesy romantic comedy that erupted from France exploiting clichés about Paris. With Office, he returned to the helm of a large and talented ensemble brought together by American standards for character development, production, writing and directing.
The obvious risk is that everything will start to look the same. Rising standards can be accompanied by creeping homogeneity. But I think we’re still in the happy discovery phase, where programs from all over the world can pop up and hit our buttons. Thrilled by the success of the above shows, producers will no doubt be wondering what else they can come up with. We should take advantage while it lasts and pray that they don’t take cricket.