When she was a child, Aurore Garnier (Nadia Farès) lost her sister in a botched kidnapping that saw her mother killed. Now Aurore is a police officer, and she’s just stumbled onto evidence that says her missing sister is still alive. The Red Shadows is another gripping drama from a country that seems to turn them out effortlessly. But what makes French crime drama stand out? Here’s five reasons:
1. The French love crime
France has been making crime TV pretty much since TV was invented. Maigret, an adaptation of Georges Simenon's popular detective novels, ran on French TV between 1967 and 1990, and then was brought back in an updated version in the mid-'90s. Julie Lescaut, about a tough female inspector, has been on the air since 1992.
With crime dramas so popular, French television has become experts in the field – and just as importantly, audiences aren’t going to sit still for run of the mill drama. So where a series from another part of the world might be content with just one aspect of a story, when you’re making television in France you have to offer the audience something special.
It’s easy to imagine a version of The Red Shadows that just focused on the family side of things: a long-lost relative returns to shake up a wealthy family? That’s a decent drama series just on its own. But this is a French series, so it’s also a crime drama: where did she go? Who took her? What does she want now? When in doubt, crime raises the stakes.
2. Location, location, location
One word: Paris. The City of Light is a star in its own right, and plenty of French crime dramas highlight its many attractions. But Paris is also home to over a thousand years of history, which comes in handy when you’re after an unique setting for a crime story. For example, Nox focuses on a female police officer who vanishes while on the trail of a group of bank robbers who use the catacombs under Paris as their getaway route. It doesn’t take long to realise that’s one place you don’t want to get lost in.
The Red Shadows takes it to the other extreme, taking full advantage of its French Riviera setting to set the family mystery against a stunning backdrop. To be fair, the family does own a holiday resort (which looks fantastic), so it’s only natural that a lot of the story plays out there. But seriously, when you have locations that look this good, how are other shows going to compete?
3. Great characters
French crime drama is renowned for its memorable characters. Spiral has been acclaimed the world over as one of the best police series around, and much of that praise is directed towards lead cop Laure (Caroline Proust), a tough-as-nails woman in charge of a mostly male-unit dealing with some of Paris’ most serious crimes.
The Red Shadows isn’t quite so gritty – there’s always that French Riviera backdrop – but by combining a family drama with a police procedural mystery it manages to have the best of both worlds character-wise. There’s wastrel sons who’ve blown their share of the family fortune on a trashy nightclub, and there’s also a damaged cop looking to put together the pieces of her broken life by solving the case that’s haunted her since childhood.
4. Smart stories
French crime dramas are masters at delivering gripping twists and turns while managing to keep both feet firmly on the ground. Even in a series like The Crimson Rivers that focuses on crimes that often have a conspiracy behind them, those conspiracies are usually based in real-world centres of power – the extremely wealthy, for example, or the church.
So while The Red Shadows has plenty of high drama going on (having a missing child return after 25 years will do that to a family), it’s always putting real feelings and emotions to the fore. Aurore has been scarred by what her family’s been through, and while the reveal that her sister is still alive is a relief, it also opens the door to a past that a lot of people though was buried.
5. The style
Just because they’re cops doesn’t mean they stop being French, and we know what that means: looking good on the job. Sure, sometimes they’re dishevelled – fighting crime is a tough gig – but there’s always a certain sense of style to French crime, whether it’s being gritty or being stylish is part of the appeal (as in the glamorously retro mystery series Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games).
The Red Shadows is a series about a wealthy family on the French Riveria; it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to look shabby. And as for the long-lost sister who grew up rough in Italy, she grew up to look like this:
Follow the author here: Twitter @morrbeat
Watch Season 1 of The Red Shadows at SBS On Demand now.