Thanks to BBC4’s Saturday night European drama slot, over the last year I’ve discovered a great love for the best of Nordic television – I loved The Killing, greatly enjoyed The Bridge and Borgen just might my favourite TV series. So it seemed like no great gamble to let them choose what I watched next – French crime drama Spiral (aka Engrenages, meaning cogs or wheels). Unfortunately, I soon discovered that this series was a far inferior beast.
Over the course of the three series aired so far, Spiral follows the lives of three Parisian police officers and three members of the local judiciary system as they become entangled in various cases, some resolved within an episode or two, others stretching across an entire series. Each series begins with our protagonists discovering a horrifically mutilated body, which leads into the main case that they must unravel whilst also dealing with minor storylines about rape, incest, infanticide and any number of other equally pleasant topics.
As you might infer from the above paragraph, Spiral is not a series which concerns itself with pleasantness. Forget about Paris the bright, sunlit city of tourist attractions, shops, cafés and restaurant; this is grimy downtown Paris, where the weather is always bleak and the inhabitants invariably up to some kind of criminal activity. And it’s not even as if our main characters are brave heroes boldly dealing with the problems of this corrupt city, because, when it comes down to it, they’re as depressingly crooked as the rest.
In fact, let’s examine Spiral’s main cast a bit more closely. On the police side we have Captain Laure Berthaud and her two trusty lieutenant Giles “Gilou” Escoffier and Frédéric “Tintin” Fromentin, who spend their time lurching between utter incompetence to being outright dangers to themselves. Remember Sarah Lund and Sage Noren? Like Laure Berthaud, they weren’t exactly known for their outstanding social skills, but the key difference was that they channelled their intensity into solving their cases, and they managed to do it in an intelligent and reasoned way. Laure, on the other hand, is a bit of a loose cannon whose first response to most situations seems to be to sleep with any men who happen to be involved – fair enough, one might say, except that she lacks the professionalism to keep her pants regardless of any conflicts of interest with whatever case she’s working. She does apparently have a long term boyfriend, but the poor sod never appears on screen, and he certainly doesn’t put the brakes on Laura’s sexual ambitions.
We’ll come back to Laure in a moment, but just to prove that this is indeed an equal opportunities series, it is vital to point out that Lieutenant Gilou is, in his own way, equally messed up. He spends almost the entirety of the first series snorting cocaine and indebted to a notorious drug dealer, although a single episode of Laura and Tintin forcing him to go cold turkey seems to cure this in time for series two and three. For his own part, Tintin is actually quite normal and stable, although that doesn’t mean that he gets to be likeable, well developed or even particularly happy.
Surely the bleakest aspect of law enforcement side of Spiral, however, is the sheer volume of incompetence and brutality that takes place throughout the series. When it comes to the more interesting and legitimate parts of police procedure, our heroes seem completely incompetent; an undercover cop strolls casually in and out of the police station, a surveillance group fails to encrypt their signal, so that it gets picked up by a neighbour’s TV – the list of embarrassing blunders is near endless. And since they can’t seem to manage to do these things properly, the end result is that Laure and her team seem to always end up trying to beat the truth out of their suspects. This is hardly unheard of in the genre as a whole, but when a police force is portrayed as a bunch of thugs whose propensity for violence makes Jack Bauer look like a pacifist, it’s hard to warm to them or commend them for showing any kind of skill whenever they do manage to solve a case.
But if the police aren’t up to much, then surely, you might think, it’s the lawyers who save the story? Well, to be honest, things aren’t much better there. Rounding out the six-strong main cast we have Judge Pierre Roban, ambitious and self-serving barrister Josephine Karlsson and solicitor Pierre Clement. Roban is probably the least interesting of the three, probably due to the fact that he at least seems to have some interest in bringing people to justice. Even storylines involving his dying mother and estranged brother don’t really add much to his character, other than forcing him to play dirty (quelle surprise) by not revealing that his brother is involved in a case he wants to work on.
Clement, meanwhile, seems to function as little more than eye candy – much like the police he liaises with (in Laure’s case, perhaps a bit more intimately than strictly necessary), his competence is nothing to write home about. In the first series, he too suffers from a conflict of interest when his best friend (who also happens to be letting him stay in Paris rent-free) is a suspect in a murder case. By series three, his attempts to help a young drug addict see him falsely accused of rape, evidence that even trying to be a nice person in this series probably isn’t worth the hassle.
And indeed, this is a lesson that the beautiful Josephine Karlsson has clearly learnt, for the vampish seductress is probably the most corrupt and self-serving of them all. When she isn’t working for old lawyers of dubious morality, she’s doing anything she can to further her own greed and personal ambition. Most of the time, she flouts the rules for money, but it does seem like she’d do it for just the hell of it. In the right hands, she would be written as a highly intelligent, multi-layered character, but unfortunately, here you just dislike her for her capricious approach to justice.
So, given this less than overwhelming selection of characters, does Spiral have much to offer when it comes to the cases themselves? Well, the series must at least be applauded for attempting something a bit different by fusing of a single case spanning the entirety of a series with more minor stories that come and go in an episode or two. Unfortunately, if not unexpectedly, the format doesn’t quite work. The short cases cover some quite hard hitting material, and yet they come and go in such a superficial way as to leave you feeling quite desensitised to the horrors they are trying to portray. Meanwhile, the police’s idea of solving the major cases seems to be to either blunder around making schoolboy errors, or just spending entire episodes trying to beat a confession out of someone detained on minimal evidence, these overarching plots are equally uninspiring, usually turning into overcomplicated fiascos that don’t even bother to resolve everything in the final episode.
With its bleak setting, relentless brutality and dislikeable characters, Spiral manages to ignore everything that makes procedural crime drama entertaining and replace it with something that manages to keep on getting worse from one series to the next. A series so miserable that it left me wondering if I would ever enjoy live action TV again, Spiral is not something I would recommend, no matter how much you enjoy other crime shows.