Dennis Broe hits the global television beat, reporting from the biggest and most prestigious television festival in the world, Series Mania, in Lille in Northern France.
France is trying to establish itself as throwing the best TV party, attempting to create at Lille the equivalent in the television world of the Cannes Film Festival. The main rival for this honour is, oddly, Cannes, which a few weeks earlier staged its own festival with creators of series in competition walking the Cannes tapis rouge, or red carpet and with as well a large global television market.
Series Mania though is bigger, more expansive and is becoming if not the purveyor of global television – there was no real Asian presence to speak of, only one Japanese series, Invasion which will open in France next week as a film – then at least the meeting place of Anglo and Continental Television, with prominent series from, of course the U.S. and Britain, the world’s two leading producers of series, alongside series from Scandinavia, Russia, France and Australia.
Case del Pape!
All series were free and open to the public and there was also three days of industry meetings, led by the appearance of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings where the hot topic was the overnight success of Spain’s Casa del Pape! This is a show which Netflix has renamed Money Heist, about a misfit group of outsiders who break into Spain’s currency mint. It’s doing tremendous numbers for the streaming service in Europe, and they have taken it over from its Spanish producers and commissioned a second season. The series with its ragtag band of losers cashing in on manna from heaven which will allow them to do things like pay for their children’s education is obviously wish-fulfillment for an impoverished Europe still ravaged by the effects of the banking crisis and austerity.
There is of course a completely different feel when the suits and the money people show up for three days of talk about new modes of distribution and finding the next hit series. The festival then turns from the Cannes of TV creators to a Davos of TV marketers, as the latter is the global meeting of the world’s finance heads. An element of the festival unique to France is its celebration of writers, with TV showrunners featured here over actors. The guest of honor was Chris Brancato, who created Narcos and there was also a master class with Carlton Cuse, famed for Lost but who also worked on two early cult series well regarded in television circles, Crime Story, sort of The Untouchables on the trail of government drug smuggling ala Iran-Contragate and The Adventures of Brisco Country, Jr. a mock Western with Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell.
Netflix is now valued at 138 billion, just under and catching up fast to the most profitable Hollywood studio conglomerate, Disney, at 150 billion. It has announced that this year for the first time its overseas profits will exceed its domestic, which means that it has truly gone global. In Europe, the company pledged one billion to creating European series, and it premiered its first Danish Series The Rain, an ecological disaster show with a unique pilot about a teenage girl and her brother trapped inside a bunker for five years, but that in its second episode becomes a kind of teen Walking Dead, a sort of Fast Times at Zombie High.
The Netflix president Hastings appeared in the same panel with a European Commissioner for Digital Markets with the commission soon to impose a quota system so that 30% of the content of streaming services must be European. This certainly is a factor in the company’s spreading 1 billion across the continent and it is also rumored to be interested in buying in France Luc Besson’s Europa Corp, as a way of meeting the quotas similar to the way Hollywood studios bought production companies in Europe after World War II to produce low budget “quota quickies” in order to not disrupt the flow of Hollywood studio product.
This dominance of an American company across the continent – which comes in the wake of the proposed mergers of Time Warner and AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile and the Comcast Disney/Fox competition to buy the Sky Satellite system, Europe’s most popular purveyor of content – all points to a potential new homogenization of Series TV and entertainment in general, with local producers scrambling to meet the expectations of better financed outside competitors.
This tug of war between the global and the local was certainly on view at the festival. Two Russian series were featured and both were disappointing given last year’s Salaam Moscou!, an exhilarating series about Russian social tensions. This year we had the very glossy The Counted, about a mysterious bacteriological outbreak in the Siberian Taiga that did not deal at all with the recent revelation of landfill pollution but rather sidestepped this issue with a phony plot about isolated survivors of a former freak accident.
Worse still was An Ordinary Woman, a black comedy about a madame which turned the death of a young female prostitute into a supposedly hilarious problem of how to get rid of her body. Russian series before this imperative to globalize used to be distinguished for their communal values in series such as Dead-beat Dad, available on Amazon Prime, about a woman trying to get fathers who left their families, including her own husband, to pay child support.
Australia, on the other hand, has responded to the global challenge by focusing on its own history and exposing social tensions in a way that highlights the local but makes it understandable for global audiences. Two of the best series at the festival were Mystery Road, what is sometimes called Outback Noir about a mysterious disappearance that highlights the plight of Aborigines and Romper Stomper, a consideration of the country’s fascist past and present based on the film that (needlessly) gave the world Russell Crowe.
The best and the worst
Time to get to the best and worst of the series that will be coming your way in the following months. There were a number of big budget disappointments, series where the high production values concealed somewhat empty moral values. Opening the festival was HBO’s Succession, King Lear in the entertainment industry with Brian Cox as the aging patriarch and CEO of a media conglomerate who in his wily madness wants to hold onto his empire rather than leaving it to his privileged and incompetent offspring. The problem with the series is it is quite clearly based on Rupert Murdoch, with the sons as James and Lachlan and the Cordelia-like daughter choosing politics over media which supposedly establishes her integrity. Murdoch, a right-wing purveyor of war for money, does not have the stature of Lear and the Cordelia figure in the analogy suggests the female Murdoch employee whose wiretapping led to the death of young girl. What a falling off is this.
Worse yet was the BBC series McMafia, a globe-hopping gangster-financial series about a banker with integrity in London who gets sucked into a money-laundering scheme. The series accomplishes some whitewashing, some laundering of its own, taking the conspiracy that John Le Carre exposed in Our Kind of Traitor that the City, the British financial industry, was saved after the collapse of 2008 by an infusion of cash from the Russian mob and instead presents the banker as upstanding victim of Russian gangsters. Not only off-putting in its politics but also racist in that the violence in the show comes either from Russia or from Arabs in the Middle East.
The City in the City
Also disappointing was the Season Two Premiere of Westworld, where the random and habitual violence was rationalized by a supposedly sophisticated consideration of what’s human and what’s machine and The City and The City, a much more ambitious British attempt, based on the novel by China Mieville, to suggest the tensions in its two cities side by side in the same space-time continuum between the life of immigrants and the poor and those established members of society who do not see them. The theme, which recalls Victorian two-level society as well as our present one, is pertinent but the metaphor remains too oblique and tame to adequately make its point.
Kiss Me First
Now to the best series. Channel Four’s and Netflix’ Kiss Me First, available on Netflix at the end of June, takes a positive view of online life somewhat in the vein of Spielberg’s Ready Player One. The character’s offline line as in the Spielberg film, is plagued by their social position on the fringes of a society whose only value is money. Their online life is verdant as they turn away from the militarist thrill of gaming to the creation of a utopian site where they can meet. The series is interested in the relationship between on and off-line life and the characters in real life look somewhat bleached and expressionless, much like their avatars, which could be seen as the way on-line life is for a new generation conditioning personality.
The aforementioned Mystery Road explores Australian’s colonial past in the rough region of the Northwest where the white power structure remains still in place, in the form of a large cattle farm which still resembles a plantation. Judy Davis plays a grizzled cop investigating the disappearance of an aborigine aided, abetted and thwarted by the Aborigine actor Aaron Peterson who projects the charisma of young Mel Gibson. Like Mystery Road, Romper Stomper is based on a film and explores tensions between Australian nativist white fascists, left activists and Muslims and other minorities caught in the middle. There is a surprising moment in the pilot where the head of the fascists explains that his ancestor coming from England, rather than being the refuse from British prisons, was unjustly jailed for stealing a biscuit. His conduct in promoting insidious hate-mongering though belies this whitewashed history.
Animals of War
On a similar topic but with a different approach is the French series Animals of War, weirdly retitled in English as War on Beasts. Based on a novel of the same name, the series focuses on a forgotten region of the country, the Vosges, in a town where the last factory, the only thing that stands between its members and utter poverty, is about to close. The series details the way its characters are then inexorably drawn to crime while also focusing on the tensions between the temptation to turn to the far right for solace instead of the workers organizing in their own defense. Very pertinent examination of France and indeed the Western democracies as a whole as the majority of their citizens become disenfranchised.
Finally there is the nostalgic Icelandic series Stella Blomkvist, an older-style lawyer-, who-dun-it in episodic format that, amid the sexually liberated behavior of its female lead, focuses on male power within the Icelandic state. A welcome throwback to a time when series could expose corruption and power relations without the moral ambiguity about power that mars today’s more expensive productions.
This is Bro on the World Television Beat Breaking Glass and signing off from Series Mania. Next week I’ll be coming to you from The Cannes Film Festival.
Dennis Broe taught at the Sorbonne. His books include: Maverick or How The West Was Lost; Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood and Class Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America’s Dark Art. He is a film and television critic for “Arts Express” on the Pacifica Network in the US, for Art District Radio and Television in Paris and for the British websites Culture Matters and Crime Fiction Lover. His latest book is Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure.
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