The actual title of Spiral, BBC Four’s imported French police drama, is Engrenages, which literally translates as ‘cogs’ or ‘gears’ – and if your stomach can stand the gore and your heart the shocks, watching the show will give your own cogs and gears as thorough a grinding as they’ve had since the climax of The Killing.
Unrelentingly grim from the outset, and filmed in such grainy, faded colour that it looks like the entire stock was put through the wash before being developed, Spiral follows the work of the judicial system in Paris – specifically Police Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her unit from le DPJ, and Judge Roban (Phillipe Duclos). The principal investigations in this, the third season of the show, are the kidnap and murder of teenage girls by a serial killer dubbed the Butcher of La Villette by the press and a bribery scandal which reaches to the highest echelons of French society. The Thin Blue Line this ain’t.
The gruesome work of the butcher, along with every other shooting, kicking, bruising, scraping and cutting, is shown in unflinching detail. The washed-out look of the show (a deliberate metaphor, perhaps, for the jaded decadence and corruption of the upper tiers of the justice system and the tired hopelessness for the people on the bottom rung of Paris’s broken social ladder) can’t filter out the bloodiness any more than the subtitles can tone down the industrial language. This is one of the gloomiest programmes the BBC has shown for a long time and there isn’t a British or American cop drama that comes anywhere close to it for sheer, unremitting bleakness: not even The Wire.
There are a few darkly funny moments in the opening two hours (a hastily-written sign placed in the window of a shop shutdown after the arrest of its proprietor reads ‘Closed for paedophilia’) but they are few and far between, and provide no relief from the constantly ramping tension. In fact, the only time there’s any letting-up whatsoever is in the brief moments of calm after each incendiary, climactic revelation. Then it’s back to the gloomy and grey police offices or the decaying, decrepit tenement buildings for more violence – either the sickening slayings of the serial killer, the brutal street brawling of the criminals, or the ‘punch and shout very loudly in the suspect’s face first, ask questions later’ approach of the police.
By the end of these first two episodes, the viewer feels as distressed, harassed and utterly perplexed as Laure and her team; and with ten more instalments to go, there is no doubt things will get much worse in the weeks to come. But for those who enjoy their crime dramas as dark and disturbing as they come, that can only be a good thing. Those less desensitized to murder, mutilation and mayhem may wish to look elsewhere.
Airs at 9pm on Saturday 2nd April 2011 on BBC Four.