REVIEW: Spiral – the French are coming…

Farhana Gani

Channel 4’s huge success with spooky drama The Returned has brought new attention to a groundbreaking French police procedural series that has been quietly lurking for some time.

Is a French invasion softly tiptoeing onto our shores?

When supernatural drama The Returned (Les revenants) was broadcast last year, complete with playful French ads during the breaks, Channel 4 had a huge hit on its hands. But for the last ten years BBC Four has been surreptitiously flying the flag for French TV with Spiral (Engrenages), a police procedural drama now beginning to get properly noticed in the UK. It’s about time: Series Five has just ended its run.

Following different criminal investigations (drug trafficking, corporate shenanigans, terrorism) against a contemporary Paris backdrop, we see each case develop from all points of view – the police, the lawyers, the judge. Paris isn’t at its prettiest in Spiral. In fact the City of Lights is grey, untidy, sordid and menacing. We’re taken into the underbelly of society and the reality of police work – the incompetence, the bureaucracy, the corruption, and of course les affaires de coeur.

Foreign TV shows are on the rise here generally, and some of the most popular have been the police dramas, probably because they tend to be easily exportable. Whilst most of us are now familiar with The Killing, which heralded the way for all things Nordic Noir on TV, Spiral is a very different crime drama.

Both feature an intense lead female detective. Both centre on a major story arc running the length of each series. Both feature situations that are harrowing to imagine and disturbing to watch. But this is where the similarity ends. So what’s so special about Spiral?

To begin with, Police Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) is unlike any other detective seen on TV. She’s unfinessed and unpredictable. Her hair and clothes are unkempt and untidy. She’s unafraid of showing her vulnerability and her emotional and sometimes fragile state of mind. She’s dishevelled in every way. These characteristics are Laure’s most defining quality and that’s what sets her apart from the rest, making her feminine, attractive and appealing. More rounded than either Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund in The Killing or Sofia Helin’s Saga Norén from The Bridge, she is – at least outwardly – the polar opposite of Gillian Anderson’s coolly reserved and immaculately dressed Stella in The Fall.

Second is to do with the utterly fascinating French justice system involving the police, the lawyers and the judge working together on a criminal investigation from the get go. That’s certainly not how things get done in Britain, and it makes for a lively TV scenario. Law and Order is a sanitised take on Spiral’s approach. The District Attorney works hand-in-hand with the police force and we do see the suited interacting daily with the uniformed and undercover police squads.

But Spiral stands out because each of the ensemble players has their own multi-layered identity. The characters display depth and contradictions. You get to know them – and they linger long after the series ends.

The Spiral players…

Spiral Characters

Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) is a workaholic undercover police captain who will break the rules if it means getting the job done. Her personal life is a mess and her team is her family. She’s one of the most complicated TV detectives ever created.

François Roban (Philippe Duclos) is a principled and rigorous judge, and a man of integrity (who looks a lot like Arsène Wenger). Uncovering the truth and applying the law is what drives him, causing him to come into conflict with higher powers.

Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi, a.k.a Henri Leclair from Mr Selfridge) is a deeply committed, honest and instinctive lawman and one of Paris’s top defence lawyers.

Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), Clement’s lover, is a fiercely ambitious and talented lawyer, with no scruples – and takes on the cases of many an unsavoury character. Her lack of judgement impacts on her reputation.

Gilles Escoffier, or ‘Gilou’ (Thierry Godard) is a rough-round-the-edges policeman with a history of drug abuse. He’s also Laure’s closest ally.

Frédéric Fromentin or ‘TinTin’ (Fred Bianconi) is Gilou’s partner-in-crime. He’s married with kids and has taken a few bullets during his time in Laure’s squad.

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Listen to the Reader's Digest editorial team discussing Spiral