While Law & Order has taken us all over New York City and The Shield delved deep into the endemic corruption of the LAPD, The Wire dissected the city of Baltimore from the street to the mayor’s office and countless Nordic noirs have taught us about the grim dangers that lurk in Scandinavia, the most engrossing crime show currently going sets its scene in the City of Lights.
Since its first season back in 2005, Spiral has explored the grimy side of Paris as its team of flawed but driven police officers and prosecutors contend with the most heinous crimes modern France has to offer.
Although titled Spiral for English-speaking markets, the original French name, Engrenages, more directly translates to “gears” or “gearing”. It’s a multi-faceted pun, referring to the unglamorous grind of investigative and legal work, the risk of getting caught up in the gears of the justice system that grind oh so finely, and, when considering the English interpretation, the endless spiral of violence and crime the characters must contend with.
The series follows six principle players. Three detectives do the investigative legwork: hardnosed Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her lieutenants, Gilou (Thierry Godard) and Tintin (Fred Bianconi). When their cases hit the courts, we have the cold and driven Judge François Roban (Philippe Duclos), strait-laced young Prosecutor Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi), and ambitious and amoral lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot).
Like a kind of Gallic Law & Order, Spiral covers both the investigative and legal elements of any given case, moving from tenement courtyard to courtroom. And like The Wire, with which the series has drawn numerous apt comparisons, it eschews simplicity, charting a labyrinthine path through both Paris’s dangerous criminal underworld and its corrupt and duplicitous halls of power.
Down and dirty in the City of Lights
In doing so, Spiral builds up a fascinating and often bleak portrait of the French capital, presented as a kind of melting pot where nothing actually melts: multicultural, but driven by racially motivated violence, endemic poverty, ruthless criminal gangs, corrupt officials, and more. It’s a cynical picture, but a captivating one.
Befitting the show’s wide-flung thematic net, the crimes both we and our protagonists are confronted with are vile and wide-ranging, with seemingly isolated atrocities almost always leading to systemic corruption. In season 1, the body of a murdered Romanian woman leads to the discovery of a massive prostitution and people-smuggling ring with connections to political power. Season 2 takes us undercover into the no-go Parisian banlieues ruled by brutal gangs. Season 3 gives us a good old-fashioned serial killer in the form of The Butcher of La Villette.
Each season ups the complexity and conspiracy, so that by the time we get to season 6, we’re mired in a web of crime and malfeasance, struggling to parse corrupt cops, drug and prostitution rings, baby trafficking gangs, and more – just like our characters, we’re caught in the gears.
And what characters they are, every bit as complex, compromised and compelling as the city they prowl.
Captain Berthaud is a relentless investigator with a fierce drive to protect her men no matter what their personal transgressions, coming across as a kind of French distaff take on The Shield’s Vic Mackey or even Heat’s Vincent Hanna. Her right hand man, Gilou, is a brutal enforcer who spends his off hours drowning himself in hookers and drugs – the dark mirror to LA Confidential’s Bud White, perhaps?
Lawyer Karlsson, who has dragged herself up from lower class origins to be a successful advocate, harbours a taste for the rough criminals her practice attracts. Every one of our protagonists harbours hidden wounds, secret desires and tragic flaws.
Last time on Spiral
Which all came home to roost at the devastating conclusion of season 6, which saw our heroes scattered to the four winds as seemingly every single character’s personal and professional lives came apart at the seams.
Season 7 brings them back together following the seemingly random killing of one of their own, Commissioner Herville (Nicolas Briançon), in what appears to be a restaurant robbery gone wrong. Of course, it could never be something so simple, and before too long the band is back together, running down a counterfeiting ring while struggling to manage their own destructive demons.
Archly cynical, deftly plotted, frequently brutal, and never less than utterly arresting, Spiral is one of the best cop shows around and with season 8 coming later this year there is no better time to start watching than now.
Seasons 1- 7 of Spiral are now streaming at SBS On Demand. Start at the beginning:
Jump to season 7:
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