The largest television festival in the world, Series Mania at Lille in Northern France, where 40 percent of all French television series are shot, just ended. Although everyone paid homage to the invasion in Ukraine, what was also often unstated was how to deal with another invasion, that of the U.S. streamer conglomerates. Money is now pouring into Europe, where production values are cheaper and where local production is being driven by the global and Western success of the Korean series Squid Game, proving that audiences around the world are no longer adverse to watching native language series with subtitles.
Public television is everywhere threatened by these private monopolies. Typical is the case of Sally Riley, who heads the drama desk of ABC television in Australia where she is also in charge of an Indigenous branch of the network. ABC has commissioned the aborigine series Mystery Road and Troppo, the latter set in the alligator wilds of Queensland, as well as the detective series Jack Irish, all of which are critical of the power structure of Australian society. Riley complains that with the global streamers now invading the market, it is much harder to secure “projects, talents and crew” and generally harder for public television to compete.
Nicole Chamoun in Troppo
Whereas previous festivals, even last summer’s, sounded a warning against European state production being overwhelmed, the panels at this year’s Series Mania Forum tended to compliment the way the streamers have invested in production, with the difference between cooperation and cooptation perhaps being thin. Bruno Patino, the president of Arte, a German-French station that is the crown jewel of European public television, lauded the Arte co-production with Netflix The World of Tomorrow, a supposed “origin story” of how hip-hop culture came to France.
The series won the grand prize of the festival but paled behind the vastly superior Disney + series Ossekine, about the police killing of an Algerian student. The lone voice of dissent on Patino’s panel “Collaborating Across Borders” was the Italian Gina Nieri, whose company has ambitions of being “the Netflix of Southern Europe” and who still viewed the American streamers as a threat to European cultural sovereignty.
In order to provide an infrastructure for this increased production, the streamers know they must cultivate talent while also tailoring European training to the needs of a more industrialized system, as the sheer volume of series ramps up. Thus, at the festival, Warner Media (HBO Now) revealed it was investing $1 million in the Series Mania Institute to train scriptwriters, directors, producers and broadcasters. This comes on the heel of Amazon’s announcement of a £10 million investment in UK film and television training.
Likewise, another panel featured Frank Spotnitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) pleading and sometimes hectoring the audience of producers and media biz staffers to accept the American concept of the showrunner not because it gave more freedom to the writer, since showrunners are writers, but because it was a more efficient way of rolling series off the industrial ramp and better suited to the influx of cash that was now arriving in Europe. In my book Birth of the Binge, I praised the ascension of the showrunner as giving new power to writers with scripted series taking precedence over a god-awful era of unscripted “Reality TV,” but in this latest iteration the showrunner is simply a more efficient cog in the machine.
This invasion has also prompted increasing monopolization and mergers of local TV stations in order to compete. Foremost among them is the proposed merger of France’s top two private and linear broadcast stations TF1 and M6. The fear is that Vincent Bollore’s M6 will swallow TF1, which does commission its own French series in contrast to M6 known for its cheaply-made reality series.
Media magnate Bollore has positioned himself as the Rupert Murdoch of French media with his CNEWS cable channel, which spawned far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, being the French equivalent of Fox News. One member of the audience described the merger as being akin to “The Hitler-Stalin Pact.” The mergers, as in the U.S. and as mergers everywhere, are resulting in media workers losing their jobs, to the point where Variety cheerily described a “rosy media employment picture” in the U.S. in the wake of a host of mergers, where in the first two months of 2022 there were only 200 job cuts.
In terms of production overdrive, the leader in this field is Korea’s Studio Dragon whose CEO Young-kyu Kim revealed, to open mouths and gasps from the audience, that his studio – which produced two series highly rated on Netflix, Kingdom and Crash Landing on You – was churning out a full series every two weeks. Kim also brought along a reel illustrating how Korea had ingeniously surmounted the country’s COVID travel restrictions in a series about Korean and Italian mafias called Vincenzo, supposedly partially shot in Italy but in fact using a green screen background for actors and then filling in the Italian scenes with lifelike digital recreations.
The Play’s the Thing
As for the series themselves, the festival functions as a kind of global spring series preview with a host of socially-minded series on the agenda. Clearly the best series at the festival, though the jury didn’t think so, was the MGM/Epix streamer Billy The Kid, premiering on April 25. The series starts out as the most cliché-ridden of all Westerns with Billy, spurs a-jangling and pistols at the ready, walking into an almost pitch-black saloon and facing down a bounty hunter who is after him.
The opening though is simply a diversion as the series then cuts to the tenements of New York City as the now pre-adolescent Billy and his Irish family decide to go west because the conditions of immigrant life in New York are so awful. The show then becomes a kind of Heaven’s Gate, an underrated Michael Cimino film about the prejudice against East European immigrants in Wyoming.
The tension in this first season centers around a Nativist hatred for all those not American, featuring killing and lynching of Mexicans, as well as a cabal of those in power who simply want to exploit immigrant labor. Billy’s stepfather is, when Billy’s mother encounters him, a racist debtor trading on his white privilege who must leave Santa Fe for the wilds of Silver City in order to flee his creditors, just as another famous white bigot who then became president had to flee his debtors in Atlantic City for the wilds of Vegas and network TV. In the guise of a Western Billy the Kid is a sharply critical examination of the American character.
From Colombia comes Turbia, a dystopic anthology series, set in Cali, the site of much current labor organizing and dissent, about a drought in the not too-distant future that accentuates the already massive gap between rich and poor, with the police-barricaded rich now having abundant water while for the poor water is rationed or sold on an underground market. The series joins those other harbingers of impending doom (as Joe Biden threatens the world with nuclear annihilation in calling for regime change in Russia) Snowpiercer and The Walking Dead, the latter currently enjoying its finest season as the survivors battle a neoliberal U.S.-style government called “The Commonwealth.”
The ingenious arc of Turbia has each director constructing their own episode within the drought situation with the first three episodes concerning respectively star-crossed lovers on either side of the divide, an old man attempting to hold onto his shack being annihilated as part of a city demolition and children threatened by a fascist army officer. The different age groups recalls Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist trilogy with young (Shoeshine), middle aged (Bicycle Thieves) and old (Umberto D) subjected to the ravages of post-war Italy.
The team from The Wire, David Simon and George Pelecanos, are back with a limited HBO series, again dealing with Baltimore, this time with police corruption in We Own This City, premiering April 25. The series takes pains to show how police brutality is institutionalized, opening with the main corrupt cop, Wayne Jenkins, in an actual case from 2017, explaining to a group of his fellow cops that when you hit the streets you forget everything you’re taught in the academy because “this is Baltimore,” and if officers don’t play rough “we lose the streets.” We then flash back to 2003 where Jenkins is told this by the officer training him and then forward two years where he imparts the same “knowledge” to his trainee. The plot of cops stealing from those they see as merely “the criminal element” also figures prominently, and perhaps more ingeniously in season two of the Nordic noir from Sweden Before We Die.
Two dark French policiers took quite different paths. Syndrome E moves at a frantic pace and encompasses a global medical conspiracy that also plays out in Morocco and Canada while Hors Saison or Off Season, is a French-Swiss series that breaks the traditional French cop series mode, an antiquated cross between Agatha Christie plots and Colombo-like eccentric main characters, in an appalling way. The female cop covers up a death, potentially a murder, caused by her son of an Eastern European immigrant woman and asks us to sympathize with the agonized mother in a way that simply romanticizes the police violence and coverups. These are otherwise contested in contemporary series, as the Black Lives Matter protests begins to (slightly) affect police procedurals.
A hard-hitting Disney series?!
The World of Tomorrow operates on the flimsy conceit that rap and hip-hop culture arrived in France thanks to a blond French DJ who went to a rap party in San Francisco and then transported the music. The series seems to have no feel for how rap challenged the very structure of a racist society, instead substituting the almost straw man figurehead of Jean-Marie Le Pen as an easy target. Much better was Ossekine, Disney Plus’ first French series which revolves around the 1986 police cover-up of the death of an Algerian student.
The series features a scene of police interrogation of the brother of the student, not to shed light on the victim, but to figure out how to portray the death as either warranted or an accident. A flashback also recalls the 1961 murder of up to perhaps 300 Algerians in Paris being thrown off the Pont Neuf, a bridge in the center of Paris, witnessed by the Ossekine family upon their arrival in France. Who would have thought the Disney series would be hard-hitting while the French series was pure fluff?
Elsewhere, Gold Panning, the first Chinese series in the festival, set in the mid-80s in a Wild-West San Francisco-type Gold Rush in a remote corner of the country where foremen cheat downtrodden workers doing the panning and everyone is out for themselves, trying to siphon off what gold they can. The series, with its contesting of the ’80s “Greed Is Good” ethos can be read as a corrective to the Deng Xiaoping era of introducing capitalism to Chinese society, as we witness Xi Jinping’s move to the left, attempting to curb corruption and discipline the too-big-too-fail Chinese tech enterprises.
The Dark Heart, now available on Roku, and a prizewinner at the festival that deserved its accolade, is a Swedish series about a controlling father who ravages the land and exerts his iron will over the town, where he is the leading landowner, his daughter, forbidding her romance with a worker’s son whose father describes the family as serfs to this capitalist lord, and the environment as he refuses to update his logging techniques to the more sustainable solutions his daughter proposes.
Finally, a series which suggests a social significance while actually staying purely in the realm of grimy science fiction is the Showtime remake of the David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth. Outside of the heroine’s explaining that the reason she is coming along for the ride to aid an alien is to gain money to help her father who has lost his insurance and is dying because of this loss, there is almost no social context. The series attempts to be a cross between Nicholas Rowe’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet, but all that is retained from the Sayles film – the better of the two – is the grimness. We don’t know much about the world the alien comes from except that on this planet there is no sense of humor. His has to be the least funny planet in the universe.