Spiral: the cure to Scandimania
So long to another sweary series of this balls-to-the-wall French drama.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
Engrenages, or to give the French police drama its British title, Spiral, is over for another year. What a pity. And what a delight series five proved to be, securing the show as one of the most exciting, passionate, violent and certainly sweariest dramas on television today. The latest outing, which concluded last weekend, was utterly engrossing, and commanded impressive viewing figures – three times the average for BBC4. It seems Spiral has finally acquired the fanbase and attained the recognition that it has so long deserved.
Since it first aired on BBC4 in 2005, Spiral has been decidedly overshadowed by its Nordic stablemates. In the past five years or so, sophisticates, journalists and the chattering classes have been in thrall to Scandimania, enthusing over the menacing, intriguing narratives found in Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, with their fascinating characters and prominent female lead roles. On the other hand, Spiral, like the more routine and decidedly male Inspector Montalbano (think Inspector Morse with better scenery), has until recently played second fiddle.
As gripping as Scandi-noir can be, it has its limitations. One can render tales of horse-trading between a minority liberal-left party and the greens in a small northern European country only so exciting (Borgen). The Bridge was exceptional for its innovative characterisation, notably Sofia Helin’s Aspergerish detective Saga Norén. But, like much Scandi-noir, its plot lines were often improbable and occasionally ludicrous: the Arne Dahl drama had a parochial Swedish police outfit tackling an international terror plot to poison Europe.
As for ‘strong female characters’, a term bandied about with much zeal, sometimes you’d think having women as leads was all that mattered. Enthusiastically employing the epithet ‘damaged’ to these lead players only panders to the specious notion that being a victim bequeaths to a character moral superiority or mystical insight.
I’ve always preferred Spiral. It, too, has its ‘strong female characters’, in the form of the tough, shouty cop Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and the bitchy lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot). Yet, while they have faced profound trauma – Laure’s partner was killed by a bomb at the end of series four, Joséphine’s was stabbed to death in this one – neither becomes irredeemably ‘damaged’. Joséphine, who was also molested by her father as a child, triumphs in this series, ultimately welching on the man who helped her to return to work with an act of characteristic unscrupulousness.
Laure is overly fond of whisky, but she doesn’t descend into alcoholism, as one would expect in popular British or US drama. Her doe-eyed colleague Gilou developed a grave cocaine habit in the last series, yet that was something he managed to overcome. Tintin, another cop, saw his marriage collapse this time around, but I’d wager that he’ll get over it in series six. For Spiral’s protagonists, life’s challenges and crises aren’t insurmountable. There’s no need for recourse to Sopranos-type therapy here. With fortitude of character, they just get over it.
In a year that has witnessed real-life horror in Paris, Spiral might seem a bit too close to the bone. But that’s its virtue. It’s not fearful of addressing and representing reality in all its messiness and imperfection. Laure’s pregnancy was a case in point. She initially wanted to abort the fetus, reproaching the paternal-minded Gilou that it was ‘my right’ – but she later demurred. The overarching message was neither pro- nor anti-abortion. The show merely intones that pregnancy, abortion and the prospect of single motherhood are subjects fraught with questions and ambiguity.
Spiral’s lack of didacticism is thus its virtue. It starkly portrays the French capital’s wretched outer-city banlieue. While traditional French cinema used to have Italians or swarthy southern French as criminals, from the very outset Spiral’s villains have been Romanians, Albanians, Kurds, black Africans and their children. In this series, the chief petty crook and murderer was a black woman, Karen (nicknamed Oz). She also came from a ‘damaged’ background, yet you only felt sorry for her right before the, and presumably her, end.
Series five also featured a moneyed Libyan creep, Ziani, who escaped justice because it suited French government foreign policy in the long term. Yet, in Spiral’s Paris, immigrants are the victims, too: the Libyan had been charged with abusing Filipino servants in his care. If Spiral has had vile Romanian drug dealers and pimps, it has also had vulnerable Romanian girls lured and trapped into a world of prostitution. Spiral has no time for make-believe, multicultural niceties. It focuses on the muddy nature of life.
‘With all due respect, you’re living in a dream world. If we did every case by the book, we’d close about five a year’, protests Gilou when charged with serious misconduct. In the tradition of Sergio Leone and John Le Carré, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the goodies and baddies apart in Spiral. All the same, you know that the cops have a superior moral compass, despite their belief that the ends justify the means.
At the same time, the success of this shocking, crude show owes as much to its incorporation of traditional tropes. Like all good police shows it has car chases, shootouts, drug busts, snitches and rivalry between different police units. The coppers live on coffee, alcohol, pastries and peanuts. And in the tradition of Hitchcock, Spiral invariably has a damsel in distress: in the last two weeks it was the ex-jailbird and coiffeuse Laëtitia, tormented and then kidnapped by Oz.
Spiral is now aired in 70 countries, and its gradual ascendency in the UK has been remarkable. By 2008 its viewing figures had dipped from 200,000 to almost 100,000, yet the first episode of series five was seen by more than a million. Its blend of ancient and modern has been central to its success. If Montalbano is Morse in the sun, then Spiral is The Sweeney in the ghetto.
But Spiral is more than just superlative drama. Like its stablemates, it has also helped to address the British public’s feeble command of foreign languages. While Borgen gave us the Danish ‘tak‘ (‘thanks’), and Italy’s Inspector Montalbano left us with ‘vai in culo!‘ (‘go fuck yourself!’) and ‘stronzo!‘ (‘arsehole!’), Spiral has reminded us of ‘merde‘, introduced us to ‘branleur‘ (‘wanker’), and forever implanted in the common lexicon ‘putain!‘ – broadly speaking, ‘fuck’.
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