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Saturday, 3 February 2018

On Television - Mark Pierce discovers human frailty on show in three superb series SPIRAL (France), THE BUREAU (France) and FAUDA (Israel)

Surely human frailty is the mainspring of art, as it is of life. Fittingly then, the best – that is, the most taut, gripping and plausible – new thriller series have been devised by connoisseurs of our own frailty. There are three such. Each of them offers a bleakly penetrating, bracing, troubling account of frailty.

The Bureau (DVD cover)
Spiral, The Bureau and Fauda notionally deal with disparate themes and divergent allegiances in quite diverse settings. The first two are French, the last Israeli. One concerns a police unit, another an intelligence agency, and the third a hybrid protective security-cum-intelligence analysis-cum hit squad. Their focus shifts between the suburbs of Paris to more salubrious Parisian suburbs, Syria, the Sahara and Iran, and finally on to the Occupied Territories.

Despite those differences, the constant element is frailty, full-frontal frailty, red in tooth and claw. Not only do events go horrendously awry. The protagonists doubt themselves, their causes and the powers that be they represent. They have reason to. The three series slyly imply that some of our systems of governance might be, if not actually corrupt, at least rickety and bid’able.  In Spiral, for instance, judges, prosecutors, police officers on the beat, detectives, Ministers and their staff, all are persuaded that rules may be bent or broken, lives might be wagered or squandered, laws and those who make them can be defied or thwarted.  In The Bureau, the agency exists to flout other countries’ laws. 


Fauna (PR shot)
In Fauda, the squad doggedly operates beyond the law. All those three groups of law-breaking, frail defenders of the State, are forced into dire risks with heavy costs, especially the likely cost of exposure, after they have exhausted more orthodox ways of catching malefactors.

The titles which purport to encapsulate all this baroque violence, crime and turpitude warrant some attention. Spiral is a pretty rough translation of Engrenages, better translated as “The Workings”. In the original French, Le Bureau des Legendes envelops many double meanings: a story, myths or false cover identities.  Nonetheless, its intricate, intimate attention is also focused on the workings, of an operation, a bureau and rival States. Fauda euphemistically rendered from the Arabic as “chaos”, concentrates on the same mechanisms.  By the way, “The Workings” would have served as a superior title even for that wonderful series we know as The Wire.

These three inquiries into inner workings can be defined first by what they are not. They are the anti-NCIS, since no clever nerds in backrooms crack codes or decipher evidence to save those on the front line from themselves. The series are the anti-Nordic noir: they deal with grit rather than gore. Storytellers from the lands with no sun are trapped in an ugly game of quasi-pornographic leapfrog, contriving ever more gruesome ways to murder the innocent. The trio are the anti-Bond. Bond is never wounded, let alone deflated or defeated. At worst he copped a belting from a rope applied gleefully to the testicles.

Mathieu Kassovitz (centre), Jean-Pierre Darroussin (r) and the male cast
of The Bureau
By contrast, the heroes in the three series start with plenty of scars, grudges and flaws, then steadily accumulate more along the way. Frailty, there as everywhere, is the key to making the characters human. They are not meant to be good. Their methods are ambiguous, edgy, dodgy, as are their objectives. That is the basis of their charm. Their intention with the viewer is empathy rather than sympathy.

Sara Giraudeau as Marina Loiseau, female protagonist and undercover
spy in The Bureau 
In the three series, more even than with Sarah Lund or Saga Noren  (in The Killing and The Bridge),  women are given their due. They lie, hustle, spy, shoot and kill more deftly than the men. Their male bosses grudgingly acknowledge that their time is up, their day has come and gone. The operations the three teams launch are true to life, and up to date, reeking of the grease and the guts of daily life. That effect is compounded by the cunning decision to lodge the teams in makeshift, ramshackle DIY headquarters. These buildings are a world away from the ludicrous glitter of Situation Rooms in American thrillers, with their innumerable banks of flashing television screens.

In his thrillers, Raymond Chandler sought a hero to explore mean streets, one “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid”. In these series, the heroes already live and work in the meanest of streets. As for being tarnished, where to start?

Caroline Proust, Spiral
My favourite character, Laure from Spiral (played by Caroline Proust) is the Platonic form of fallibility. She wanders through Series 2 charged with serious crimes. She dissembles, uses illegal equipment, ignores orders, suborns an opponent, sleeps with a colleague, loses her gun, muffs pursuits of suspects and has her hide-out attacked by a mob. She cops all that in the stubborn, selfless pursuit of evil doers. The wicked in these series are not merely greedy plutocrats; they are genuinely evil.


When someone asked the Abbé Sieyès what he did during the French Revolution, he replied: “as for me, I survived”. Laure might say the same, as might all her colleagues here in the French bureau or Israeli intelligence. Laure might also remark: “as for me, I suffer from – and benefit from – frailty”. Frailty might easily be forgiven when those with that trait are prepared to put their cases, careers and lives on the line.

Spiral/Engrenages - Series created by Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, Six series beginning in 2005.
The Bureau/Le Bureau des légendes – Series created by Éric Rochant. Three series beginning in 2015
Fauda – Series created by  Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff. Two series beginning in 2015

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