French Friday: a Cultural Dive Through French TV Series


This post was a tough call for me. I always have at least a couple of drafts ahead of my postings. Usually I write them at night, a few days before hitting the Publish button.

Last month during the A to Z Challenge, I introduced several contemporary French authors who write crime fiction and thrillers. As a reader it has never been my favorite genre, but I like a good TV crime drama. My partner from the other side of the Atlantic sent me links to some movies extracts, based on these crime fiction novels. Which conjured the idea of a new post that I drafted then and completed early this week.

Yesterday night I was home late and alone since my husband was away, so I tackled last week thick Sunday edition of the New York Times. In the Style Magazine I found an article about foreign TV series. Which immediately caught my eye since the article and my blog post approach a similar topic. The author of the article writes about foreign series at large and not specifically about French ones. However, she mentions my current favorite French crime fiction show.

I was first hesitant but ultimately decided to go ahead and publish my French Friday post in the version I finished on Monday.

My parents didn’t own a TV set until I was in high school, so I didn’t get to watch much TV when I grew up. My paternal grandparents had one, though. This is at their home that I could catch up with Le Commissaire Moulin, a nice-looking good cop that I followed with fervor while he and his team solved crimes. Most crime fiction TV series in the 1980s were American. We had Starsky and Hutch and also Miami Vice, but I was never hooked as much as when I tagged along Columbo. Still inimitable.

While we had never watched TV much in Paris, my husband decided to buy a TV set as soon as we moved to California. Like me, he had big hopes that normal things would transform us into Americans and that watching TV would make us fluent. Another topic for another day.

At night my husband followed a few favorites shows. Among them, the series Cops. He has told me numerous times that he would have loved to be a police detective. And I have told him numerous times that we would never have met. So while I didn’t enjoy watching graphic videos showing cops in action during patrols, I still remember the catchy theme song.

“Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do?”

That’s when I wondered why I had been taught to say, “What are you going to do?”

In a funny way, the baby I expected then is quite fond of the expression “Gotcha.”

Most Wanted was also a show my husband watched. Thanks but no thanks. The mugshots pinned at the post office already gave me the goosebumps.

But I liked NYPD Blue. As I watched the team of detectives from the 15th Precinct I got more than a glimpse of the streets of New York City. I discovered the American justice system, with its similarities but also differences with the French system.

There were also the occasional slang words that I would add to my growing list of new words. The F word was new to me, and I can now attest that it wasn’t yet all the rage. It felt reserved to special occasions.

Above all, there were the personal stories entwined with the police’s daily work. Facebook would say, “It was complicated.”

Through them I discovered, even if the situations were dramatized, the way American people communicated and lived together. Everything felt both progressive and backwards. Women had more prominent careers and there was less blatant sexism than in France. But hairspray was more widely used and people didn’t dress that well. Coffee was left on the burner all day long and food was an afterthought.

This is why I think that foreign TV series can be real windows on other cultures.

Until recently it was hard to watch French movies and even more TV series in the States. It still remains a challenge since France is a watchdog when it comes to exporting its culture. But when a series is noticed and gets the industry’s recognition then it’s possible to enjoy a good show from the comfort of your American home.

This is how I discovered the French series Spiral, so far my favorite. Its French title is Engrenage.

Engrenage has two different meanings in French. It’s the gear in your car but also an unstoppable trap. For example l’engrenage du jeu would be the nasty circle of gambling.

Spirale is only a noun in French, with the same English meaning.

Americanization is global, so the cultural shock is not as great in this series in comparison to the shows from the 80s or 90s, particularly since many American English words are now part of French people’s daily lives. The dialogues are infused with them.

Yet some things never change.

First, it’s refreshing to see actors and actresses who look pretty much like you and me. Okay, Peter Falk in his rumpled trench coat and at least one detective in NYPD Blue weren’t exactly top models.

But the actors and actresses in our new American TV shows have never missed an appointment with their orthodontist and their hairstylist. They got waxed and manicured on a monthly basis. Superior beauty products or more drastic interventions take care of their wrinkles, puffy eyes, and dark circles. Of course, they don’t smoke.

My favorite character in Spiral is Capitaine Laure Berthaud. What woman wouldn’t like her? Berthaud is in charge of a small team of detectives. Besides an occasional young female trainee, the team is exclusively masculine. Perfect to empower the young Capitaine. Although her closest partners are loyal and pretty good guys, she’s a woman. So she hears her share of sexist remarks about getting her periods and comments on her private life. When she arrives with a new outfit, something very rare, as she seems to wear the same pants and boots episode after episode, the men notice and imply that she must have a man in her life. It doesn’t take long to notice that unlike American actresses who play similar roles Laure Berthaud is unkempt, almost dirty. Her hair is rarely combed and often messily bunched as if she had just woken up on a Sunday morning after a rough Saturday night. In fact, every day seems like a post rough night and it probably is if you are a young woman cop dealing with little support from your hierarchy but determined to make your little corner of the world safer.

The men aren’t looking any better. Even the young impulsive Théo forgets to shower. If he lives in a pretty cool apartment, at least at the beginning of the series, I’m not sure there’s a bathroom. He certainly never learned how to shave and he chain smokes. Exercising is a foreign word to all of them. When they undress they don’t exhibit shoulders that could lift the Eiffel Tower and six-packs where you could safely set your glass of Bordeaux. Yet women kiss them full-mouth and would do anything for them. Which must be very reassuring to French men.

Back to my beloved Capitaine Berthaud. Alone, she’s able to track really, really bad boys along the seediest streets of the Parisian suburbs and handcuffs them without using her gun. Gotcha! Yet she remains genuinely vulnerable and sensitive when she bumps into a tough case involving kids and teen girls. And when she falls in love.

Speaking of guns, these French detectives agonize whether or not using them. When a cop shoots in France it’s breaking news. The sanctions are severe. Including in TV series. It’s a shocking contrast with American TV series and sadly with our reality.

Yes these French TV series are very much like American ones, with graphic scenes and scenarios that  sometimes feel a little too dramatized. However, they are worth sampling if you want to dive in a small country, still quite different from these big USA.

Do you watch French TV shows?



  1. I really enjoy watching series from Latin America and Korea, thank goodness for captions and Netflix. I haven’t found any French series though. I tend toward family or historical sagas and not police shows (I had enough of that in my previous life)

    • I do remember you mentionning on your blog about watching series from Latin America. I’m sure you can go without the captions for them, right? For Asian shows it’s another story. I try to stay away from TV as it sucks so much precious time. But a good French show is hard to resist 🙂
      I also love family saga a lot. In books or movies.

  2. I try not to watch TV series, so I don’t get sucked in. 😉

    I remember when we first got a TV in our household when I was a kid. It was a black and white set, but still amazing to see images on it.

    • Wise from you, Jennifer. I’m also quite careful about TV. This whole week I was alone and didn’t watch anything. Made another round of revision for my novel. Cannot wait to submit again.
      Yes, TV was black and white for me too 🙂

  3. I have never watched a French tv show. I appreciate the explanation of engrenage.
    I’ve been deep into documentaries the last several months, but we do have a Foreign group I could select, I believe on two services. I shall look for this one, Spiral, when I do.
    I deeply enjoyed reading about the contrast. You wrote it beautifully. Sometimes we do tire of pretty people. At our house, we remark on the amazing way characters sleep without so much as smearing their eyeliner, or how they never actually eat food… It sometimes breaks the suspension of disbelief.
    I get angry at subtitles in English and French. Few people actually say, “I’m going to go to the gym later.” Irritates me.

    • I don’t blame you for not watching French TV shows 🙂
      The only reason Spiral is available is because of the recognition it got.
      You make me smile when you mention the characters who look so polished whether it’s dawn or dusk. I felt this way with The Good Wife. Alycia never ate or only a pizza once in a while.
      The subtitles are a pain but also a source of amusement. They helped me a lot when I watched American movies in France 🙂
      Thank you for your nice words about my writing. I appreciate them.
      Enjoy the long Memorial Day weekend.

      • My pleasure. You too!
        Alicia was THE WORST! 😛 With her wrap-across-the chest cashmere, and her 5 shades of eye shadow! Haha!

      • The series had great moments, but later Alicia appeared unreal, mostly due to the drastic physical changes from the actress. Too bad I liked her in the old ER.

      • Have you watched any of the spin-off show yet? I forget what it’s called. I have not seen any of it.

  4. I love watching foreign language crime shows – one of our channels shows them every week – most are Scandinavian, but I recently enjoyed a French one called ‘Witnesses’ and I enjoyed the two series of ‘The Tunnel’ which was in French and in English.

    • Here too, we got lots of Scandinavian series filmed in Sweden, in particular.
      Glad you mention two other French shows that I don’t know. More possibilities here:)
      See you on your blog, Andrea.

  5. Why don’t you try ” Commissaire Maigret ” ? Evidently, Georges Simenon is Belgian, but he lived a great part of his life in France, began in Paris.
    They are very good TV series – or films ( Jean Delannoy with Jean Gabin for instance )- Paris and France some years ago, evidently.

    • On les regarde! Mon mari est un fan de Simenon et il a lu et acheté tous ses livres, y compris ce qui a pu être écrit à son sujet:)
      Donc tout ce qui a été adapté de ses Commissaire Maigret l’intéresse. Et même si ce genre littéraire et cinématographique n’est pas mon préféré je reconnais un immense talent à Simenon.
      Merci pour ta visite et suggestion. Bon weekend!

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