Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Great French TV Series

I haven't offered any TV round-ups in a while (here are previous ones in reverse chronological order).

I just finished "The Bureau" (French title "Le Bureau des L├ęgendes"). It was a high-difficulty binge, but well worth it. It's a terrific espionage drama, highly realistic/naturalistic, all about Process. It's quite subtle and methodical and plenty tense despite a measured pace and lack of special effects. Despite a modest budget, you get soaringly evocative glimpses of different cultures and landscapes. This is how you squeeze every last nickel out of your budget!

It's also authentic. I follow a few intelligence service veterans on Twitter (John Sipher is a particularly erudite rascal...don't just view his tweets, you've got to check out his replies), and they agree that this program shows the real deal. If you wished "Homeland" made way more sense and wasn't so hammy/pandering, "The Bureau" is your jam. It gets one of the highest IMDB ratings of any series out there.

I call it "high-difficulty" because the only way to view it is to sign up for Sundance Channel (if you already have that one in your cable package, this might be available to you for free on-demand), e.g. via Amazon or Apple, for about $7/month, then play the shows over your Roku or Apple TV or Fire or whatever. And, when you do, there's no online support. No recaps or discussion. I resorted to auto-translating the French episode-by-episode discussion here. It wasn't great, but it was something. There's also a sleepy Reddit group, and the episode summaries at Wikipedia. And that's about it. You're on your own. Good luck.

One note: The final two episodes of the 50 episode run were handed off to a different writer/director who completely shakes up texture and pacing, turning it into a whole different show. The fans were horrified, but it was just beautiful. The program as an espionage piece ends in the third-from-last episode. The last two are strictly coda - the downshifting to normality for adrenalin-loaded deep-cover spies - produced with heart-breaking and fully cinematic beauty. View them as a languid, impressionistic tapping of brakes and playing out of well-telegraphed inevitable karma. Fantastic.

Up next for me: Borgen, the famous Danish political drama, which just came to Netflix. I'm told not to expect it to always make perfect sense.

After doing some serious asking around, it looks like the two runners-up to "The Bureau" as best French TV series are "Un Village Francais" and "Spiral", both available free on Amazon Prime. Also, I remain an enormous fan of "The Young Pope" (which morphed into "The New Pope"), a kinda-sorta French production (though in Italian) available on HBO/HBOMAX. It's not for everyone, but it absolutely slayed me - every moment of every episode. All-time classic.

And, back to American TV, "Succession", which I've raved over before here, only gets better in rewatching. I haven't viewed any episodes more than three times, but there are people online who swear that the fourth time's exquisite. If you view nothing else, make it "Succession" (on HBO).

Here's a terrific round-up of great recent international tv series from the NY Times.


Val in Seattle said...

Jim, The Bureau sounds right up my alley. Are you saying the Sundance stream has no subtitles?? There is another French Tv series I'm curious to watch: "Parlement" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parlement_(TV_series).
My favorite Danish tv series is "Lulu and Leon" dark and bright crime caper marriage story.
I watched 3 seasons of Borgen. Seasons 1 and 2 were good solid TV with a great cast. Season 3, a little tired.

Jim Leff said...

Val, no, there are subtitles, plus apparently a very high quality English dub. Great show, I highly recommend. Pretty universally considered the best French series ever, and also the best espionage series anywhere (though I consider the original Alec Guinness “Tinker Tailor” an untouchable classic). And, if you haven’t seen yet, I can’t recco “Succession” (HBO) highly enough. And “The Young Pope” (though it’s not to everyone’s taste).

I’m currently at middle of first season of Borgen. Feels like a slightly soapier West Wing set in Denmark, and it’s not really doing it for me. I’ll try to hold on a bit more.

Jim Leff said...

Where the heck would one watch Parlement? I can’t find it anywhere

Val in Seattle said...

As far as I know, Parlement is not available in north america. I hope it gets released for U.S. viewers, with english subtitles.

Val in Seattle said...

Re Borgen. I think some of the topical themes are a bit heavy-handed for today's audience. But those same ideas were likely new and engaging to 2010 viewers. You say the same about west wing.

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