Even when you’re tasked with investigating alien phenomena, office life can be a real drag – just ask the overworked boffins of GEPAN.
Travis Johnson

10 Dec 2021 - 11:26 AM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2022 - 3:20 PM

“It ain’t rocket science” or so the old saying goes, but rocket science is exactly what French engineer Didier Mathure (Melvil Poupaud, Summer of 85) is engaged in when his career unexpectedly crashes and burns – along with the rocket he’s poured the last several years of his career into.

With the government investigating exactly what went wrong with their multi-million dollar space launch, Mathure is given a new assignment to keep him out of the way until the dust settles – heading up GEPAN, the Groupe d’Études des Phénomènes Aérospatiaux Non-identifiés or, in English, the unidentified aerospace phenomenon research group – the department of the French government that investigates flying saucers.

Now, you might expect our hero to find himself mixed up in some conspiratorial spookiness in the vein of Project Blue Book or The X-Files. Instead, he finds himself relegated to a dowdy office and leading a crew of amiable misfits, including enthusiastic young nerd Rémy (Quentin Dolmaire, Godard Mon Amour), cheerfully spacey receptionist Véra (Daphne Patakia, Benedetta) and surly ex-cop Marcel (Michel Vuillermoz, Angels in America), and working his way through a backlog of eyewitness reports of strange lights in the sky from an array of eccentrics – quite a fall from grace.

All this takes place in the late 1970s, replete with all the outre fashions and garish furnishings of the decade, lending UFOs an extra hint of surreality for the modern viewer. Although there’s been a trend for science fiction comedies over the past few years, including Future Man and The Orville, UFOs doesn’t quite fit into that category. Rather, it’s a sci-fi-adjacent workplace comedy.

Remember Mulder’s cramped little office in the basement of the FBI building? Imagine if The X-Files was set almost entirely there, stripped of most of its fantastical elements, and was instead about a staunch rationalist condemned to a dead-end job and forced to deal with all manner of weirdos who really want to believe, and you’re on the right track.

But do note we said, most of its fantastical elements and not all. While UFOs cleaves to reality for the most part, as the series progresses, more and more elements of high weirdness creep into the frame. What caused a flock of flamingos to plummet from the sky one fateful night (the benign eccentrics of GEPAN keep one survivor as a pet, naming it Hatshepsup)? Why did the previous head of GEPAN depart suddenly to travel around the world by caravan, sending the odd cryptic postcard back to the office? And most pressingly, why is shady military officer Commandant Valérie Delbrosse (Nicole Garcia, Lupin) warning Mathure not to delve too deeply into what seems to be a sighting with an obvious rational explanation?

Something is up, and the fun comes from watching the resolutely logical Mathure follow the thin thread of clues through a weird world of aliens, conspiracies and cults.

Whether or not the truth is actually out there is rather beside the point. UFOs is resolutely its own thing: an amiable workplace comedy in the strangest workplace imaginable, a dry satire of French bureaucracy, a gentle parody of The Decade Taste Forgot, and a character study of someone coming to understand the limits of his philosophy and his abilities.

That last one sounds heavy, but really it’s the engine that drives the whole thing. Mathure is a wonderful comic creation, a man absolutely convinced of his own intellectual superiority who has to learn over and over again that he doesn’t know everything, and so is constantly flummoxed by the universe’s refusal to play by rules he understands. A materialist among mystics, he’s forced to chart his own course through the wild world of UFOlogy – be sure to take the trip with him.

UFOs premiered on SBS VICELAND on 14 December. The series is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.

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