SPIRAL - FRENCH TELEVISION CRIME DRAMA - REVIEWED BY GORDON WEIR
Spiral (Engrenages in French) is a long running French crime drama, first appearing on UK screens in 2006. The final, and eighth series, was aired in January 2020; a total of 86 episodes. Spiral tells the story of a Parisian CID team which operates in some of the more dubious parts of the city, dealing with everything from murder, drug dealing, money laundering, kidnap, prostitution, burglary, robbery and many other crimes driven by underworld activities.
Although the nature of the crimes is often fairly familiar, and you cannot miss the fact that behind many of the crimes are immigrant groups, perhaps what is most watchful is the behaviour of the CID team who often come close to the criminals themselves in their disregard for the law.
The main character is Commander Laure Berthaud, played to perfection by the classically trained Caroline Proust. To say that she is a complex character is an understatement; a mixture of vulnerability, obsession and anger all played at 100mph. Although she has several affairs, these are all short lived, reflecting what is most important to her – her job. Even the unexpected birth of a baby daughter is, at first, a nuisance she could well have done without. Throughout the eight series, the order of importance of the supporting cast changes either with the story line or else due to actors leaving the show. Gilou Escoffier, played by Thierry Godard, gains in importance with each series, beginning as a cocaine addict (he is still a policeman at this point!), and only just avoiding dying of an overdose, to becoming Laure Berthaud’s main support; professionally and emotionally. His career as a policeman seems almost completely at odds with his character and, at times, viewers may be left wondering how such a morally imperfect individual could ever pass any selection criteria in the first place. The answer perhaps is that he understands the people they deal with better than anyone else. ‘Tintin’ Fromentin, played by Fred Biancomi, is the person who has the unenviable job of keeping Laure and Gilou out of trouble. His part is more believable than the other two in that his behaviour is both considered, responsible and, most important, law abiding.
The other main characters belong to the legal professions; the meticulous, by the book but extremely determined Judge Roban (Philip Duclos) and Pierre Clement (Gregory Fitousi), an up-and-coming young public prosecutor whose downfall begins as a result of an old friendship. The third member of the legal profession is Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot). Ambitious, and with a love of money, she is willing to do almost anything to get ahead and as such puts herself in danger on more than one occasion as she becomes the legal representative for some very shady characters, however, as she eventually begins to bond more and more with Laure, she eventually re-evaluates what is truly important. Unlike Laure, of whom we know nothing of her background, Josephine’s troubled background does tell us a little about why she is the way she is.
Relationships between the cast members are also an important part of Spiral. Laure’s relationship with Judge Roban comes across as similar to that of a father and daughter as she runs off to Roban on several occasions in order to get her own way. Roban, who seems alone for most of the time, both in his quest for justice and emotionally, often welcomes Laure with fatherly affection but at times, when she ignores his advice and directives, he chastises her perhaps more severely than anyone else, as if hurt that she has let him, of all people, down. Laure is also the person that most looks after the well-being of her team. Guiding Gilou through his drug addiction and supporting Tin-tin when others turned against him and life at home was becoming too much due to a growing family. Even Josephine and Pierre benefited from her friendship; Pierre being one of Laure’s brief affairs.
The storylines, as mentioned above, do have regular themes, mainly drugs and murder and feature, as the criminals, a collection of unsavoury characters whose origins tend to be former French overseas territories or else Eastern Europe. This in a way makes it a bit like cowboys and Indians, where you simply have to look at someone in order to know on which side of the law they lie. But Spiral is never as simple as that and makes clear, on many occasions, the corruption that is present throughout the legal systems and within the police force, each believing it has to be this way to succeed; all that is except Judge Roban.
Episode 1 of series 1 sets down a marker for the goriness to follow, opening with a young woman lying dead in a skip with her face obliterated by the repeated pounding of a hammer. As things proceed, her sister is later found hanging dead on a meet hook in a meat store. This then, is how it proceeds from this point on and for the next 85 episodes and there is never any lack of imagination from the writers as to how to kill or maim someone and no one is excluded – even children. In a sense it is an autopsy of the worst of Paris (and you see lots of those as well), revealing those parts of the city that we never see as tourists and are never told about, revealing the socio-economic truth about the city as well as its systematic corruption and prejudices. In a strange way it is reassuring that the police and legal establishment are part of this; maybe they have to be. In fact, Laure and Pierre are both arrested along the way and Gilou and Josephine both end up in prison; Gilou for extortion, theft and kidnap (just some of the many things needed to keep a case alive) and Josephine for running over her boss after he drugged and raped her.
As for the main characters, Laure and Gilou become a couple and eventually and bid farewell to the police force – Gilou has to and Laure has had enough. Judge Roban retires and Pierre is tragically killed outside Roban’s office after being taken hostage. Josephine, after her release from prison, appears to mellow and has a new close friendship with her colleague Edelman. Tin-tin, having had enough of Laure and Gilou, transfers to another department. So although it seems that Caroline Proust has definitely played Laure for the last time, there have emerged new members of the cast who could lead the way for another series. It would though also be a shame to let Laure and Gilou go for good and never be seen again.
Spiral for me, has reached the pinnacle of this type of genre. Programmes like Wallander started our viewing habit but along with Beck they now seem ponderous and not that exciting by comparison. I then thought that The Bridge and then The Killing were as good as it gets but for sheer pace, acting ability, excitement, enthralment there is only one winner and that is Spiral.