For many years — decades, even — French writers and directors thought of television as the ugly stepchild of cinema. There were few connections between the two fields: No filmmaker would consider working for the small screen. Which isn't to say that there weren't good shows, but even the best were considered inferior to movies. This is pretty crazy, as we had some good home-grown TV. I remember avidly watching miniseries like La Poupée sanglante , Les Rois maudits (the original, not the remake), and series like Les Nouvelles aventures de Vidocq (ah, the saucy Danièle Lebrun, my childhood crush), Arsène Lupin and Chéri-Bibi.
Things began to change in the early 1990s, when the French-German ARTE channel started drawing film directors to work on miniseries and films that often also played in cinemas at the same time as they were broadcast. André Téchiné's Wild Reeds, for instance, started off as a 60-minute made-for-ARTE movie.
But this was all pretty arty. The latest development has been the marked improvement of commercial French series — especially the ones produced by Canal Plus — and most of them influenced by HBO. Thanks to my family's busy DVR recorder, I've been able to watch quite a few. My favorites so far have been Engrenages, a great procedural that wrapped its third season in June, and Pigalle, entirely shot docu-style on location. Appeal to IFC: Show them in the US!
I had mixed feelings about Braquo, about a cop with ethical issues played by Jean-Hughes Anglade, but watched the whole first season anyway. And I haven't been very far with Mafiosa, even though it takes place in Corsica.
Right now I'm in the middle of Maison close, which takes place in a high-end Parisian brothel in 1871, right after the Commune. It's pretty good so far, even though some of the aesthetic choices are slightly cheesy. Playing George Jackson's "If I Could Open Up My Heart" while two prostitutes put on a sapphic show for a client's benefit was the equivalent of a runny brie. Still, there's good stuff in there. I even like the sour lesbian madame hopelessly in love with her star employee. It's a cliché character straight out of the 1950s, and nobody in the US would dare show someone like this now. That's something I regret, in a twisted way, as it only adds to the pulpy ambiance. Here's the start of the first episode.