Spiral – series 7 (Engrenages, France, 2019)

Riveting characterisation

I remember watching the first episode of Spiral in 2006, which (if I remember correctly!) featured the naked, dead body of a female prostitute found on a waste tip. I suspect that it was this misogynist trope that put me off but when I gave it another go, I was gripped. Like The Bridge, Spiral succeeds because of the brilliant characterisation which is perfectly embodied by the actors. After finishing series 7 I am hankering to go back to the beginning particularly to observe Gilou’s (Thierry Godard) arc (character development) given what he does at the end of series 7. Godard’s bear-like shagginess, and mournful face, perfectly wraps Gilou’s idealism in a packet of cynicism.

Laure (Caroline Proust) is another conflicted character, a staple of the detective genre for many years, and her narrative thread about motherhood has been particularly emotional. Proust is brilliant and I wonder why she doesn’t do film.

One of the difficulties of long form TV series is to sustain interest in characters; sometimes they need to be replaced for dramatic purposes or possibly for personal reasons of the actors. At the end of series 7 we may be seeing the end of Phillipe Duclos as Judge Roban who has reached retirement age. In his final scene he sat in the chair opposite to where he normally sat and we see, for a second only before the cut, his expression which seemed to be interrogating what he had done during his whole career. It’s on example of the often brilliant direction, which is relatively rare in television though is increasingly apparent – see also Mad Men (US, 2007-15). Whilst most of Spiral is efficiently shot, necessary in a fast-paced, 12-part television series, there are moments were the camera position is commenting upon the action. In one episode, the alienation between Laure and Gilou is evidenced by the crane shot outside their hotel bedrooms.

Audrey Fleurot’s Joséphine Karlsson is another compelling character. A lawyer who started this season behind bars and, inevitably, the experience changes her but there is no simplistic evolution of her character. The scene at the end of a court case where she helps a fellow inmate, features her trying to hug the defendent through a glass partition: a brilliant visualisation of Joséphine’s character development. Fleurot is another top notch actor; she manages to convey Joséphine’s viciousness and vulnerability in the same expression.

For reasons beyond my ken, television series have not been of interest to me this year but Spiral is one of my audio-visual highlights of 2019.

Gremlins wouldn’t allow Des Murphy to post this comment so I’ve added it here:

Nick wonders why Caroline Proust doesn’t do films. She does but not many. I saw her as a teenager in a 1994 Cedric Klapisch film, “Le peril Jeune” (a play on the expression “yellow peril”), a coming-of-age drama which also featured Romain Duris who went on to become a major star in French cinema, while Proust has been restricted to TV movies and series. Likewise both Thierry Godard (Gilou) and Audrey Fleuriot (Christine Karlson). Godard had a minor part in a Phillipe Loriot film called “Welcome” and did a few more films but never in a major role. Likewise Fleuriot. She had very much a secondary role in “Intouchable”, one of the greatest box office success in French film history. She also had a minor (English-speaking) role in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”. Both she and Godard were among the lead actors of, for me, one of the best historical dramas in the history of TV: Un Village francais (2009 – 17). But not, so far, in cinema.

There seems to be an almost-Chinese Wall between film and TV actors which is gradually eroding in the USA and UK. Some leading  French film actors (Gerard Depardieu, Kad Merad, Jean-Pierre Darrousin, Mathieu Kassovitc, Carole Bouquet, Natalie Baye, Karin Viard) have appeared in French TV series in the last few years, it’s but seldom in the other direction. It’s a pity that this “glass ceiling” which seems to prevent “TV actors” getting leading film roles persists. It seems to be breaking down in the UK (eg Jude Law in “The New Pope” ) and the US, where Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Merrill Streep were in a recent TV series (“Big Little Lies”). It’s a pity this persists!


Hidden (Craith, UK, 2018)

3D drama

Hdden is no doubt influenced by Scandi-noir, even to the extent of mixing languages; here Welsh and English. It avoids the pitfalls of imitation (which for me Hinterland didn’t) primarily through three-dimensional characters; I even found myself sympathetic to the horrendous villains. This requires great acting and the cast are superb throughout, with Rhodri Meilir’s Dylan possibly being the most outstanding. Directors are important to good acting, Gareth Bryn directed five of the eight episodes, as is script: imdb lists five writers. It’s not only American TV that can use a team of creatives to such a high standard.

TV can score over film because it can digress; for example DI Cadi John’s (Sian Reese-Williams) interrogation of the wrongly imprisoned Endaf Elwy (Mark Lewis Jones), which ran through most of one episode, had time to build his character. His reminiscence about bees was particularly telling. The emphasis on the psychology of all the major, and some minor, characters was fascinating.

Whilst it may not have quite filled The Bridge-sized gap, Hidden was brilliant.

The Bridge (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark, 2018) – series 4


It must be difficult to sustain extremely high quality over four series but Hans Rosenfeldt and his crew succeeded with a brilliant end to probably the best police procedural television programme. I’ve little to add to what I’ve written about the previous series (12, 3) just to say that it was great to have such an appealing male character, Thure Lindhardt’s Henrik. The negative representation of men, particularly white and middle aged/class, is entirely justified; in Henrik we can see an entirely caring man who wants to do good. I’ll miss him almost as much as I will Saga.

McMafia (UK-US, 2018)

Victim of circumstance?

This is another series that has benefited from the globalisation of the television industry that has seen an increasing number of co-productions meaning bigger budgets. A few years ago if a TV drama needed the American market the narrative would likely have been compromised to suit its apparent needs. However, since the growth of cable, which unlike the Networks will run ‘adult’ drama in terms of content and concept, this is no longer the case. McMafia is a BBC-AMC production with an international cast; the main creative personnel, with the exception of Hossein Amini, are British. Amini is Iranian but has lived in the Britain since he was 11. The director of all eight episodes, James Watkins (of the excellent The Woman in Black), and Amini are credited as ‘creators’ of the series based on Misha Glenny’s brilliant nonfiction account of the globalisation of gangster capitalism; it was published 2008.

McMafia was broadcast on the BBC at the start of the year in the prestige Sunday evening slot (actually New Year’s Day) and then ran the next two episodes on following days before the last five ran weekly. Ratings were high at the start (7.5 million) but had fallen by two million a week later. This isn’t surprisingly given the relatively complex and ‘unsexy’ subject matter of money laundering which requires the drama-sapping image of the protagonist staring at a computer screen. Credit to the BBC for giving the star treatment to a drama that does show the realities of 21stcentury crime that, in Russia, is state-condoned. In the west, the corruption of power is less obvious (unless you’re the Tory party of 2018 or in Trump’s America) because the sham of democracy is an effective smokescreen; in Russia Putin’s one party rule is too obvious.

The big budget allows location shooting in around the world and key locations include Mumbai, Moscow, Prague, Tel Aviv and London. Hence an international cast is needed and the quality is high: plaudits to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Merab Ninidze, Karel Benes and David Strathairn. Women are unsurprisingly sidelined but there is a distressing subplot featuring Sofya Lebedeva as a teenager kidnapped into prostitution and the attempts of a bodyguard, played with steely intensity by Oshri Cohen, to help her.

As the series progresses the narrative focus switches away from the machinations of high finance, and its brutal global implications, to the moral degradation of its protagonist, Godin, played effectively by James Norton. Although the latter episodes lose something in terms of educating us about ‘how it all works’, in dramatic terms it is very effective with ‘edge-of-the-seat’ chases and clever plot turns. Hopefully those who enjoyed the series will read the book.

McMafia is a superb drama that is both politically aware and honest in its depiction of moral corruption. There will be a sequel and it will be interesting to see how low he can go.

The City and the City (UK, 2018)

Not really there

Is anything ‘unfilmable’? Probably not because everything can be adapted but it was brave of the BBC to put China Mieville’s intriguing novel in a primetime Friday night slot. The premise of his novel, that two cities exist in the same place but it is illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other, is obviously a major challenge for the visual medium. Director Tom Shankland conveys the division brilliantly by blurring the forbidden parts and using the excellent David Morrissey’s troubled expression, in shot-reverse/shots, to indicate he’s trying not to see. Tony Grisoni’s script moves mountains to convey the weirdness of the place whilst keeping the detective narrative going. However, I’m not sure whether audiences without knowledge of the novel will cope.

Mainstream television narratives require momentum because if it stalls the remote is too close to impatient viewers. When reading a novel a stalling narrative is less of a problem because (my tendency at least) it’s easy to put down and have a break; very few of us expect to consume novels in one sitting. The same could be said for pre-recorded television though I suspect few break up individual episodes very often. Apparently the trend is for binge viewing where many episodes can be consumed at once. So in the weird world of The City it is essential that the strangeness does not get in way of comprehension.

I can’t imagine The City in the City being produced, say, 10 years ago. The explosion of ‘quality television’ has shown there is an appetite for complexity; for example, series three of Twin Peaks (2017) was typical Lynch in that events are never fully explained and he does shoot some scenes as longueurs. The second season of Twin Peaks failed because this weirdness was not allowed by the network.

The art direction (David Bowes) is superb, a scuzzy noir world that is a melange of times and places. The mixture of iconography (including I think East Germany (GDR) and Turkey), numerous accents and ethnicities give the programme a modern edge that is beyond postmodern eclecticism. In our world where borders are a key issue The City and the City is a timely and must-see broadcast.

Kiri (UK, 2018)

Home sweet home?

This Jack Thorne scripted four-parter (Rachel De-Lahay co-scripted one episode) touches a number of bases and bravely ends unhappily. Sarah Lancashire is her usual mesmerising self as a social worker who makes a human error with fatal consequences; the cast is uniformly strong, especially Lia Williams and Finn Bennett as mum and son in a family torn apart by Kiri’s murder. In addition to how the press cover social workers, which tends only to happen when it goes wrong and then they sit on a high horse and condemn, race is key as Kiri is black and her estranged father, an ex-drug dealer, is unsurprisingly a key suspect.

Of course not all is what it seems which could be a motto for middle class values and Thorne steers the focus toward the collapsing bourgeois family. The final scenes, where the son Si is taken to a private boarding school, show the true corruption at the heart of the narrative. The entitlement of the upper middle classes poisons public discourse (in the UK) in the press and politics; the ridiculous smear campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn this last week is the latest example. Corbyn’s politics do present a challenge to the status quo and those in power, both the press owners and conservative (of all parties) politicians, will do everything they can to hang on to it at the expense of everyone else.

Thorne, and director Euros Lynn, present the press as an undifferentiated pack that chase its prey for a story and not because they are interested in the truth. In a powerful scene Kiri’s foster mother (Williams) walks into their centre and gives them all photographs of the young girl reminding them of humanity. A powerful series.

Godless (US, 2017)

Rewriting rules

Two brilliant Netflix productions (the other’s Mudbound) within a month proves the worth of the subscription. If Mudbound should have been seen in the cinema, then Godless, as a series, belongs on television though it too would have looked great on the big screen. The Santa Fe locations are stunning and writer director Scott Frank produces some fantastic visuals. Frank has a long track record as a scriptwriter in Hollywood but only directed two feature films; he’s responsible for the whole eight hours (across seven episodes of varying length) of Godless.

While the Western pops up occasionally in feature films, the last I saw was the disappointing The Homesman (US-France, 2014), it remained a television staple in the latter years of the 20th century. I’m not sure how it’s fared since, though I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) – though I only saw season one. Godless, apparently, was marketed as a feminist Western, featuring a women-only town. One tweet pointed out that, despite this, women only had 38% of the dialogue in the first episode. I suspect the progressive claim was manufactured by the marketing department seeking a USP; though such Westerns aren’t unique – see The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). That’s not to say that women aren’t important, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever have great roles as outsiders who refused to be bowed. Their performances, indeed the cast are uniformly great, are excellent as are the protagonist, Jack O’Connell, and the antagonist, Jeff Daniels who has never been better.

In common with long form television, the narrative is fragmented with liberal flashbacks filling in the gaps. Dramatically this is valid and helps maintain the pace in a long narrative. There’s also time for diversions to puncture American myths, Mormons who massacre and blame the Indians for example; rewriting the Western, the genre that tells of the greatness of pioneers, is entirely appropriate as contemporary America implodes.

It is rare for me to be impatient for the next episode and I’ve resisted ‘binge watching’ (sounds unhealthy) but I saw Godless within 17 days and I recommend this article about the series’ greatness.

The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017)

Piece of resistance

We are living in extraordinary times, politically; this is particularly obvious in the Trump presidency and the openness of neo Nazis in America. Canadian Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel seemed to me, when I read it at the time, to be out of its time. How naive of me and how prophetic of her. Like all SF (I don’t care she doesn’t like the term that’s what this is) Attwood wasn’t prophisizing but writing about trends in the contemporary world. Bruce Miller’s adaptation, he’s credited as series creator and wrote some of the scripts, obviously updates the source material but Attwood’s premise, of how patriarchy is based on ownership of women and violence, is horrifyingly of the moment. Beware spoilers ahead.

Many of the 10 episodes are written and directed by women, a smart move by Miller for this is a story of oppression of, and ultimately rebellion by, women. Especially powerful were the scenes of sexual exploitation and, without having closely analysed the making, I suspect this is because they were shot from a female perspective. Similarly, in the final episode, when Moira reaches Canada her experience as a refugee is brilliantly realised.

The ability of art to place us in others shoes, and hence encourage empathy, is ‘soft power’ that enrages those on the right, when the texts are liberal, and encourages them to march with their hard power – guns and violence. The monolithic and individualist world view of the right seems to express a mental fragility that cannot cope with anything different to themselves.

The acting is superb throughout; even Joseph Fiennes, who I usually find insipid and weak, has been superbly cast. The direction and cinematography is superb, which is increasingly the case in ‘quality TV’. The dull palette, and freezing weather, contrasted by the blood red cloaks of the handmaidens, is a perfect setting for a world empty of love and passion. I doubt I’ll see anything better on television this year.

The Bridge – series 3 (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark-Germany, 2015)

Saga's character tells a tale

Saga’s character tells a tale

Unsurprisingly this would have been in my top ten of last year if I’d seen it then; it will be in this year’s. The brilliance of the series is in the protagonists, though the elaborate plotting – this one is built around parenting – is also impressive. Sofia Helen’s autistic Saga is extraordinary in both the former’s performance and the latter’s personality as she strives to empathise but is ‘imprisoned’ by her difference.

After the demise of Martin as her partner, in series two, the producers had to be careful with who became Saga’s foil; he (or she) couldn’t be like Martin. The team’s sure-footedness was apparent by initially having an older woman and then introducing the unsympathetic, at first, Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) who works both as a foil and a man with his own traumatic past.

Apparently the ratings, on BBC4, reached 1.4m showing an appetite, albeit a minority one, for subtitled brilliance. Long may Nordic Noir continue.

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany, 2014)

War as it was and is

War as it was and is

I can’t find enough superlatives for this Danish TV series; simply, it’s the best TV I’ve ever seen. Ole Bornedal’s creation manages to  show the brutalities of war at the front, the consequences at home and the political stupidity that leads to pointless brutality. Bornedal, who wrote and directed the brilliant Just Another Love Story, uses the big budget to exemplary effect; I haven’t seen more terrifying war sequences and the performances are utterly engaging. The use of a framing story to link the events to the present is an effective device and the right wing backlash, in Denmark, showed it hit the mark. Those on the right like to live the myth not the reality.

The ending of the narrative is philosophical, accompanied by a tour de force use of sound. Another memorable moment was the blood running down the window to form the Danish flag as the PM had a breakdown. Throughout the direction is cinematic, that is using the image to tell the story rather than simply convey the script. Of course, the division between cinema and television is blurred these days; possibly the only distinction we can safely make is that serial form suits the latter. It’s not only the best TV I’ve seen but one of the best audiovisual texts I’ve ever experienced.