TV Review: Spiral (Engrenages), The Shield, The Hollow Crown

Spiral (Engrenages)
Seen up to the beginning of Season 2

This was one of the first European cop shows to really get noticed with good press, coming to attention even before something like The Killing and the various Nordic dramas which the BBC have adopted. What makes this an interesting show is that everyone is a bastard and it has a particularly vicious amount of politicking as well as some pretty unpleasant crime, gangs
and sexual violence as well as a focus on the particularly novel French legal system, with its focus on the inquisitorial system. I would place the show as a cross between something like The Wire or The Shield (yes I think it’s that good) with a chunk of Law and Order as it has a quite a significant focus on the legal aspects and the client-lawyer relationship. It’s also one of few crime dramas I can think of which is written by women. It’s also nicely paced with plenty of character development and plot, which is normally based around a particularly unpleasant crime.

It creates a wonderful sense of endemic corruption and cronyism all well hidden, especially among the political elite who cover up hideous crimes and exploit those around them. It’s all set up around a small band of detectives who are more than happy to break the law if it gets the job done. Police Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) is a noteworthy lead for being an aggressive female cop which is extremely rare especially one who takes the role of the traditional male not really playing along with the law (illegal wiretaps and beating confessions out of people). The interplay between the characters is great as there is a constant tension between them because they each occupy such widespread roles, rather than giving a feel that they’re all one unit. The French legal system is of course completely alien to anyone who is accustomed to British or American shows such as there being judges at crime scenes, fewer warrants, much more low tech policing, no juries but lots of judges which all make for a fascinating world to uncode.

The French ‘police procedural’ has very different roots compared with what we’re used to and Spiral has clearly influenced another example of this sort of drama (Braquo). It’s a nice taste of the dark side to France and personally I find it far more compelling than the Nordic dramas (The Bridge, The Killing etc) partly because Laure Berthaud is such an unusually charismatic lead.

The Shield

Seen up to the beginning of Season 4

The Adventures of Vick Mackay (or how much nasty shit can we get this man to do and still make him sympathetic to the audience). He is a fascinating character who does some truly nasty things but he remains sympathetic due to his belief that what he does is necessary. First he convinces his team, then he convinces you. He is also helped by having two disabled children and having a reasonably affectionate relationship with his wife while shamelessly sleeping around. He is a deeply unpleasant character but he is a remarkably sympathetic audience figure by doing very little things such as how he looks after a prostitute, and just like Russell Crowe’s character in L.A Confidential, he’s always keen to deal with those who harm women. In later seasons the tension is ratcheted up over a very successful robbery which like in the classic western The Gold of Sierra Madre, it destroys relationships, damages trust and makes violence the only option. There is a wealth of interesting characters other than the central Strike Team, such as beat cops, detectives and management all trying to deal with Vic and the bloody terrible place they call their beat from an under-equipped station (with the running joke that there is only one toilet). Really the story is about Vic and how far you go along with his questionable policing methods and naked corruption.

One remarkable note is that it is based on a real organisation called The Rampart’s (also recently made into a movie) which seem to have been as effective and as amazingly corrupt as these fictional cops. It’s a nice series to accompany The Wire even though its stories do not have the same concurrent nature (although in later series this becomes much more common). This is another American city with major problems in almost all aspects but this time it’s sunny California, making racial tensions between hispanics and blacks a big issue, with cops in the middle and other groups forcing themselves inside this melting pot.

The Hollow Crown

The Hollow Crown is a very good set of TV movies based around Shakespearian plays that I do not know particularly well and its fantastically acted by true Shakespearean actors such as Patrick Stewart and Ben Whishaw (who plays the tragic figure) as well as many well known English actors. It’s long for TV but short for the theatre as they have reduced a play of over 3 hours into 2 hours 20 minutes. It’s a complex story showing a particular English perspective on monarchy and the tensions between the lords and the king. It’s a superlative bit of work in adapting Shakespeare whose work so frequently becomes made into dry, dull movies that have been the bane of students throughout the land. What makes it interesting to me is quite how straight its played as it adopts the complete look and dress of the late middle ages.

It is directed by Rupert Gould, one Britain’s best known theatre directors and known for so many great theatre revivals. For him to direct a film is an interesting choice as he has had very limited film directing experience. However, he and Trevor Nunn are known for incorporating film into their performances, making this an unusually brave choice for the BBC. It’s rather nicely filmed with lots of ‘Point of View’ shots from people or objects. I will leave it at that and hope you have a chance to see it for yourself.

Review by Harry Riedl


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