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Le zapping c’est chic

From Engrenages to Les Revenants, France is conquering the small screen

When did the golden age of television dawn? Was it with the first few seconds of the pilot for HBO’s The Sopranos, with New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) doing the unthinkable and visiting a psychiatrist? Or was it two years later, with David Simon’s cult series The Wire? Or maybe it was Six Feet Under, that delicately dark drama which went on to propel Michael C Hall for a staggering eight series of Dexter.

No one will agree on a definite season or episode. The only thing most critics would agree on is that it was American cable networks such as HBO, Showtime and AMC which invested millions to first propose television as a serious medium, remove the once-held stigma that no real actors would appear on television, and then attract the big stars to the small screen. 

The list of Hollywood A-listers translating their talent to television reads like the ending credits to a blockbuster - from Christian Slater, James Franco, Matthew McConaughey and Claire Danes to Kevin Spacey, Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald, they’re all there, at the end of your remote control.

Such success naturally migrated to other countries. Nordic noir hit the small screen with a big black bang and a closetful of thick cardigans. Danish series Forbrydelsen was picked up by BBC and then repackaged in the US as The Killing. The same good fate befell The Bridge and Borgen. 

Italy also tuned in, producing Gomorrah. And France did not sit back on its favourite couch. Rather, it turned its attention to television. This, however, was more difficult than in other countries, mainly because the French film industry is subsidised by the state and the big screen is the favoured option with the more seasoned actors. 

But the foundations were already there, with Spiral attracting a huge audience. Les Revenants followed. On paper, a zombie narrative set in a small Alpine village would never work but in the real world - or at least that of television - it did. Then French television received its greatest endorsement when Gerard Depardieu signed up for Neflix’s Marseille, exploring and exposing the city’s dirty underbelly. 

The success of this series fuelled the production of more French television. With plots as diverse as France’s cheeseboard, productions share a set of common elements: slow-paced storytelling, gorgeous cinematography and that je ne sais quoi that keeps viewers tuning in for more. 

Marseille

The show’s creator Dan Franck has compared Marseille to House of Cards. It is, but at the same time, it’s not, as the French drama is a mix of one part politics and five parts crime in all its forms. It all plays out in a city which, despite the clean-up of recent years, still has a dark underbelly which spikes politics and fuels the narrative, one episode after the next. And at the centre of it all is Gerard Depardieu, as broody as ever, moving his chess pieces against his younger opponent, played by Benoit Magimel, for the final battle royale. 

Spiral

Engrenages was a huge hit in France, on BBC Four in the UK and on Netflix in the US. Now in its seventh season, it is difficult to describe - but saying that it’s French is probably enough. There’s drama in the courtroom, office politics played out in police departments, criminals with friends in high places, predators and prey, and Audrey Fleurot’s flaming hair - itself a character - all set against a gritty Parisian backdrop. 

Un Village Français

First aired in 2009, Un Village Français caused the same sensation that the NBC mini-series Holocaust did in 1978 Germany, as it asked viewers to seriously address Vichy and the issue of collaboration during the Nazi occupation in World War II. 

This period drama begins in June 1940 in Villeneuve, a fictional village in the Jura mountains, with the Germans at the door. The French have to accept that invulnerability was indeed an illusion, and as the Nazi forces sweep through France, with every episode, the war intensifies, the options narrow and collaboration between occupiers and occupied thickens. 

The Returned

People return to their Alpine village and discover that they have been dead for several years. That is the introduction to the mysterious universe of The Returned. Slow-paced, cruelly so, but gorgeously shot, Les Revenants is strange, gorged on suspense and suspicion, and will send shivers up and down your spine.

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