If you want to go deeper, and darker, into what la belle France has to offer, here are some shows you’ll want to stream next.
French TV is having a bit of a moment. That’s mostly thanks to Netflix’s Lupin, the soigné gentleman-caper series starring Omar Sy that debuted on the service earlier this month and promptly swept The Queen’s Gambit crowd off its feet. (And not just them: Lupin attracted the attention of some 70 million subscribers in January, according to Netflix, more than have watched Bridgerton, Emily in Paris, even—mon dieu—Tiger King.) And no wonder: Lupin is zippy, light, irresistible, the kir royale of TV. (Call My Agent is also seducing the Champagne-streaming set with its Parisian blend of urbane workplace comedy and atomized sex appeal.)
I’m a French TV partisan. I love this. But I have to say, especially when it comes to Lupin, I feel a bit left out. The French do crime better than anyone (except maybe the Scandis), and Sy is incredibly appealing, but Lupin has too much romanticism and frictionlessness to satisfy proper crime fans like me. It’s escapism—nothing wrong with that. But if you want to go deeper, and a bit darker, into what la belle France has to offer, here are some shows you’ll want to stream next.
France’s hit spy series is more John le Carré than Homeland—and thank goodness. Realism and humanity prevail in this complex but absorbing drama, which has been helmed by Éric Rochant through five seasons. (The recent season finale was turned over to celebrated filmmaker Jacques Audiard.) It’s part workplace drama, part character study, part globe-hopping suspense series as DGSE agents infiltrate jihadist groups and tangle with the CIA. The lead, Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays a superspy code-named Malotru, is a fascinating study in French masculine ideals—handsome, wounded, lovelorn, stubbornly brilliant, kind of short. Hugely recommend.
How to Watch: Stream on Sundance Now
Another long-running classique of French TV, Spiral takes the cop-and-justice beats of Law & Order and the subtlety and knottiness of The Wire and combines them in a deeply satisfying police procedural. Lupin makes the French capital look glossy and alluring; Spiral takes off the filters and shows Paris’s grimy side. The crime scenes can be gruesome and macabre, but this is not a sensationalist show, and its leads, particularly Caroline Proust as the police captain Laure Berthaud, are ruggedly human and flawed in all the right ways. Spiral has been around since 2005 and is now in its eighth and final season, but don’t be deterred. Start at the beginning, and you will be drawn right in.
If the above options seem a bit sober minded, try the ludicrously fun suspense thriller The Chalet, in which a group of (attractive, Gallic) friends arrives at an Alpine hotel near a small, curiously abandoned French village. There is a hooded killer in the woods who begins to take the wedding group down one by one. The proceedings are more Agatha Christie than gruesome slasher, and a double-timeline structure keeps the storytelling complex, with long-simmering secrets gradually revealed. Pulpy and propulsive, this is one to save for a Saturday binge.
How to Watch: Stream on Netflix
Supernatural TV is a tricky genre to get right, but France’s The Returned (not to be confused with the subpar American remake) is best in class: a genuinely eerie and elegantly atmospheric mystery that unsettles through its two satisfying seasons. Set in a small French mountain town where deceased residents begin mysteriously returning with no awareness that anything is amiss, the show is beautifully acted and shot—and blessed with an amazing score by the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai. As the undead begin to gather—and perhaps they are not as innocent as they seem—the show becomes disquieting and indelible.
How to Watch: Stream on Amazon Prime
Crime procedurals need a sense of place, and the French series Witnesses from 2015 has one of the strongest: the windswept seaside resort town of Le Tréport in Normandy, with its gloomy weather, sheer cliffs, and rickety funicular. Witnesses, a hit in France, is not especially innovative—its downbeat mood is heavily indebted to Scandi noir, and its odd-couple detective pair recalls classic procedurals like Broadchurch. But this show has stylishness and tension to spare, as well as a macabre imagination when it comes to its killers. It also has one of those impossibly chic female detectives, played by Marie Dompnier, that the French specialize in.
How to Watch: Stream on iTunes and Amazon
Who Killed Little Gregory?
I’m perhaps cheating with a true-crime entry, but this five-episode Netflix documentary plunges you into a French working-class village where something terrible has happened: a four-year-old boy abducted from his front stoop and discovered drowned in the nearby Vologne River. The 1984 murder case captivated France for decades and spawned a media feeding frenzy, which is ruthlessly documented here. This is an unsettling watch, with themes of dark family discord, rural insularity, and ugly cultural sexism that dominated the media coverage. But it’s fascinating and well worth your time.
How to Watch: Stream on Netflix
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