It’s been almost seven years since I last tried unsuccessfully to dip into French police procedural Spiral. I did a review at the time and was upbraided for trying to get into the show at the start of the third series instead of starting at the beginning – which is a fair point, even if I’d been acting on advice from another fan of the show who said that the start of series three would be an ideal point to jump on board. Either way, the series didn’t take and I haven’t tried again since; but a paucity of TV options at the start of January made me decide to give the latest run a go.Somewhat like my abrupt conversion to Inspector Montalbano, this time I had no problem getting into the swing of things and immediately took a liking to Spiral. The French title for the show is Engrenages which is more accurately translated as ‘cogs’ or ‘wheels’, applied here to the whole of the French judicial machinery including not just the police but the world of the judges and prosecutors who take an active role in directing the course of an investigation long before it comes to court.
But ‘spiral’ is also an equally good title for this show, as it examines how an investigation quickly expands from an initial incident to go in wholly unexpected directions with exponential complications along the way. Here, the initial story is kicked off by the discovery of a dismembered male torso which proves to be the body of an apparently efficient if unremarkable young police officer. But who could have wanted him dead?
The star of the show is police captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), who works with her trusted lieutenants Gilou (Thierry Godard) and Tintin (Fred Bianconi) under the oversight of Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos). A separate storyline follows the world of defence lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (played by Audrey Fleurot, recently one of the stars of Witnesses: A Frozen Death.)
All the characters are deeply flawed; indeed the entire police and judicial system are mercilessly satirised by the series and exposed as borderline incompetent. The police can barely carry out a standard surveillance operation without getting spotted, or else a fight breaking out between team members meaning that they miss their subject’s getaway. A raid on a refugee camp to retrieve a crucial witness sparks a riot in which several officers are hurt, while a search on the house of one of the suspects sees an officer steal gold bullion contraband in order to finance his faltering domestic relationship.
Laure herself is distracted by the birth of her premature daughter Romy, but she still goes back to work despite the baby’s critical condition. Tintin meanwhile keeps taking off without warning to deal with domestic issues involving his estranged wife and son, while Joséphine goes to extreme lengths to gain revenge on one of her own legal colleagues. Even the usually unimpeachable Judge Roban is compromised, continuing to work while keeping secret the fact that he is suffering from a brain tumour that is increasingly compromising his ability and judgement.
It won’t give you a great degree of confidence in the French legal system, but it’s certainly very entertaining and engrossing. Not only am I a convert on series six, I even intend to get the boxset of earlier episodes so I can start from the beginning and catch up properly. There’s surely no higher or more sincere praise for a show than that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Spiral is on BBC Four on Saturdays at 9pm and afterwards on BBC iPlayer. The previous five seasons are all available on DVD.