Spiral v. Scandal

engrenages scandal

I talk about my Netflix-watching habits a lot on here. Probably more than I should. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I watch on Netflix. It’s just that I think I could probably devote my energy to writing about things that matter. But, then again, Netflix is a thing that matters to me. I guess it shouldn’t matter me so much but whatever, I like watching things on TV in my spare time, so there. I have been watching two series recently: Spiral and Scandal. Spiral is kind of like French Law and Order – its French title is Engrenages – but with season-long story arcs and subtitles. Scandal is kind of like…ugh, you all know what Scandal is kind of like because you probably read the internet and also you probably have seen a Shonda Rhimes show before. Both of these shows are great for binge-watching.

I watched the entire first season of Spiral in one weekend. I swear, by the end of the weekend, my French comprehension was back where it had been when I was taking college French classes. (I’m not sure what this says about me or the Northwestern French department.) Anyway, Spiral is dark and gloomy and filled with the kind of wonderfully flawed characters that have made modern television so great. Police Captain Laure Berthaud shares much with a female law enforcement officer who is also one of my favorite television characters, Prime Suspect‘s Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren. Both are women who struggle to maintain power in a male-dominated field, while they barely keep their dysfunctional personal lives from reaching a state of complete disaster. However, you learn much less about Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) in the first season of Spiral than you do about Jane Tennison in the first season of Prime Suspect. Because the show isn’t entirely about Laure. It’s also about Assistant Prosecutor Pierre Clement (Gregory Fitoussi), whose story dominates most of the first season, as his personal life becomes entangled in the season’s main story, that of a murdered Romanian prostitute with high-ranking connections. Supporting characters on the police force and in the judicial system – Audrey Fleurot brilliantly plays a young, corrupt lawyer named Josephine Karlsson – are fully realized, and their individual motives take the first, and then the second, seasons to places I didn’t expect. But, the themes of the show and the stories told aren’t all that different from the police and legal dramas we’ve seen before, and there’s something about that familiarity that’s comforting. You know that even if the road to the end of the season is a winding one, they’ll probably catch the bad guys and everyone will learn some kind of lesson.

Watching Scandal gives me a different kind of satisfaction. Unlike Spiral, which not only boasts a comparatively complicated plot, but also requires one to read subtitles and figure out how the French legal system works, Scandal requires little attention paid in order to follow along. I watched the first season this winter, after hearing from several friends that  the show, in which Kerry Washington plays the #1 Washington fixer who is also having an affair with the president, is the best kind of soapy fun. I found that it was pretty much exactly how they described it. It is literally CRAZY, full of conspiracies and secret presidential sex and Kerry Washington wearing a series of beautiful white cashmere outfits. Women (and men, but I’m more fascinated by the women, I guess) struggle for power in the show, but the tone is such that these struggles are much less realistic and interesting than the character arcs of Spiral.

I started watching the second season of Scandal immediately after finishing the first, but stopped after one of the stories carried over from the first season was resolved. I recently picked up where I left off in an effort to catch up with the third season, which premiered a few weeks ago. I can report that, two-thirds into the second season, the show is still insane and satisfying in the same unchallenging manner and I really, really hope it doesn’t get as bonkers as Grey’s Anatomy did back in the day, with all of the ghost sex and runaway grooms. At this point, I’m invested but not sure that I’ll continue to be so into it that I will live tweet the show along with every other woman in America.

Two more seasons of Spiral await me on Netflix. I’ll probably wait a little bit before watching them. It’s not quite a thing here, not having reached the same level of fame as Borgen and Danish television, which has been the subject of trend pieces in the New Yorker and elsewhere. (I started watching Borgen this summer and then fell behind and wasn’t able to catch up, which I’m a bit sad about.) However, there was this New York Times article about French TV recently. I hope it inspires streaming services to start carrying more of these shows. I could see myself getting caught up in more foreign language television, especially if they make me feel like maybe I could speak better-than-terrible French again at some point in my life.

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