Murder, They Watched: Are the French Obsessed with American Crime Drama?

If French television were to be likened to a single American television channel, I’d choose one with a focus on crime drama, like TNT.

You may not be surprised if I told you which American shows are big here in France. Like everywhere else in the world, it seems, the likes of Grey’s Anatomy, House and CSI top the ratings. However, you’d be surprised to hear which shows still make it on the air in France in 2012.

Let’s have a look at this week’s TV listings, straight out of 1974 Little House on the Prairie (likely on its 254th rerun), ’80s favorites Hart to Hart (known here as Pour L’Amour Du Risque – which translates as “For the Love of Risk” – complete with a French-language theme song, which is worth the detour).

Other vintage favorites include: Hogan’s Heroes, The Nanny, Step by Step, Who’s the Boss, Married With Children as well as classic detective shows Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, inexplicably known around these parts as Arabesque.

And that’s not even on some obscure cable channel, all those shows are broadcast on free-to-air, mainstream TV. In all fairness I should add that there are also some quite decent US programs that have made their way to France, including such shows as Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother, but great new shows are still outnumbered by ’80s and ’90s repeats. Does that mean that French TV is the TCM or the ESPN Classic of daytime television, airing shows you’ve already seen over and over?

Well, not entirely. If French TV were to be likened to a single channel, I’d choose a channel with a focus on crime drama, like TNT. Here are the shows that were featured on basic French TV channels over the past week: Body of Proof, Bones, Boston Legal, CSI:NY, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, Crossing Jordan, Dark Blue, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NCIS, Profiler, Psych, Hawaii 5-0, The Closer, The Finder, and Third Watch.

All in all, that’s 18 crime dramas in one week, often multiplied by two as some come in double bills. All of those shows are or have been at some point aired on one of the most popular channels in terms of ratings (TF1, France 2 and M6) proving that what we have here are heavily watched, American-made shows. Its obviously difficult to compare French and US schedules, due to the existence of different networks and cable options, but in France, if police shows are your thing, you can arguably find a way to watch them all day without even having to put your TiVo to use.

It should also be noted that many CSI and Cold Case episodes are not broadcast in the series’ chronological order: a season 4 episode may be followed by another one from season 2, which is apparently not a problem for French networks. Its true that story arcs are not as vital a part of crime drama as they would be in other series which heavily rely on end-of-episode cliffhangers as in, say, Lost. In my opinion the negligence of a series’ chronological order undermines the possibilities for viewers to appreciate character development and the evolution of relationships between them. If you’re not convinced, I suggest you try watching Desperate Housewives episodes in a random order and try to keep track of all of Bree’s significant others and Teri Hatcher’s facelifts.

My question is: Why are there so many American police procedurals on French TV? Several hypotheses come to mind: a) French networks are unable to produce crime drama so we need to import police procedural shows en masse, b) the French public may love the police so much they want to see them on TV all the time, c) French people all secretly yearn to become forensic scientists one day, and d) French women have a massive crush on David Caruso. While we have interesting hypotheses here, I only feel comfortable exploring the first one.

It would be very wrong to assume that French viewers are flooded with the likes of CSI because they are deprived of French-language crime drama. I dare say that there has been a glorious national tradition of French police procedurals or detective shows, starting perhaps with Maigret, an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s popular detective novels which ran on French TV between 1967 and 1990, then remade into a more modern version in the mid-’90s. Maigret was also adapted in Britain by the BBC, between 1960 and 1963, and then in 1992, featuring Michael Gambon in his pre-Dumbledore prime as the chain-smoking inspector.

In the ’90s, TF1 (France’s first channel in terms of ratings, not necessarily in terms of intrinsic quality) produced a string of police procedural shows featuring wildly charismatic inspectors, such as Navarro and his signature move, picking up the phone and going “Navarro, j’écoute” (Navarro; talk to me).

In 1992, the same network launched Julie Lescaut, a motherly yet uncompromising female police inspector who still today graces our screens with her ginger mane.

Both shows have been very successful, and the latter is currently on its 21st season. I could name many other similar shows produced since the ’90s by TF1 (Les Cordier: Juge Et Flic, Femmes de Loi, Une Femme d’Honneur and a lot more) and France 2 (Central Nuit, Lyon: Police Spéciale, P.J., among others) which only goes to show that French viewers are far from suffering from crime drama starvation.

Such shows nonetheless appear to me as very “French” because they are anchored in a tradition of realism. In a French show, you are more likely to see the police drive standard French cars or use man speed cameras rather than take part in a spectacular car chase punctuated by several improbable explosions. I am not implying that American crime drama is less realistic than its French counterpart (or that speed cameras don’t exist in the United States), but if I am to trust what I can see on CSI, then the American police has unlimited, Dark-Knight-like technological means; police officers are unbelievably handsome, and always find the perfect spot to park their car so that they can start the chase within seconds. Perhaps French viewers yearn for a more modern, in-your-face type of police procedurals, hence the proliferation of American programs.

However, in recent years, there has been a shift towards attempts at a more glorified depiction of French police under the influence of American paradigms. We now have our very own CSI copycat entitled RIS: Police Scientifique, a show so shamelessly close to CSI it comes with its own acronym and latex-glove-wearing forensic specialists. Have a look at the compelling opening credits below and be baffled by the best special effects French TV can buy.

Judging by the premise of this new show, French police now seem to boast state-of-the-art forensic technology and sprawling headquarters worthy of MI5. Since 2009, TF1 has also been airing another flagrant carbon copy of American crime drama: Profilage, which, as even the least francophone amongst you will have noticed, consists in an adaptation of the ’90s classic Profiler, the only difference being that the main character is a redhead, unlike Sam Waters in the original version.

In case the French viewer’s thirst for crime drama were not quenched by such a plethora of original French programs and imported American series, extra supply can be found thanks to even more imports from our favorite neighbors, Britain and Germany. Ruthless, bespectacled German inspector Derrick was the figurehead of German police procedurals between the ’70s and the late ’90s, and his slow-paced, gun-free antics hugged the Sunday-night prime-time slot on France 3 for most of my childhood as part of a double-bill of German kriminalserien along with Ein Fall Für Zwei (A Case For Two) or Tatort (Crime Scene).

Since the early ’00s, most of those German shows have been replaced on France 3 with more recent British counterparts like A Touch of Frost or Midsomer Murders, (dubbed here as Inspecteur Barnaby), perhaps giving the worrying impression that the British countryside is dealing with appallingly high crime rates, since each episode is bound to feature at least one murder in a quiet British village.

Given the many sources for police procedural shows that air in France, its safe to say that French viewers are hungry for crime drama. They just can’t get enough of them, even though they are flooded with original French programming; they still need to import American, British and German series. Being quite impervious to the appeal of the genre myself, its a need I have a hard time understanding.

Such shows are misleading as they depict extremely modern police services, with extraordinarily efficient officers, who can drop a piece of evidence into a seemingly magical scanner and, only seconds later, identify a suspect thanks to an HD mugshot on a computer screen (I’m sorry, but its hardly ever clear how this magical scanner works). I can’t help thinking that things are not that easy in real life. When my wallet was stolen a few years ago, the police could not use a DNA sample to identify the thief, and no David Caruso-like hero showed up in a Hummer to catch the thief. I’m afraid many TV addicts, whose expectations are shaped and defined by those shows, are bound to be disappointed when they have to deal with the adequate (yet unglamorous) French police.

Beyond my personal dislike of crime drama, what I find interesting is that in France most of the American TV shows imported by mainstream networks are police procedurals. Other than a few notable exceptions (The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, House M.D. to name but a few) great shows, especially comedy, hardly make it to our French screens.

In my opinion, the main reason for the relegation of American comedy to the background is not the dominance of crime drama, but rather reasons that are inherent to the comedy genre, especially the fact that they reference aspects of popular culture and would thus be difficult to adapt to a French audience. I was therefore baffled (in a good way) to see 30 Rock broadcast here (and sadly, dubbed) but it didn’t last long. Few viewers could relate to the show’s premise, which is so deeply rooted in the topical comedy of shows like its mother ship, Saturday Night Live. One solution to fill the lack of comedy series is to turn a successful foreign franchise into a French version. For example, The Office, whose British and American incarnations were briefly broadcast in France, gave way to a short-lived French-language remake, Le Bureau.

Unlike reference-laden comedy shows, police procedurals are fairly easy to follow, especially for a non-native viewer who has a very limited familiarity with American culture. But as such shows quickly fill the quota of American TV that we get here, what is worrying me most is that French viewers’ vision of the American way of life and society reflects the series’ plotlines and personalities: a nation of murderers, drug dealers and prostitutes – if I am to believe what I’ve seen on CSI: Las Vegas.

There are other cities in America than CSI‘s New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami, and it would be nice to see some of them on French TV every now and then. I personally recommend Scranton, Pennsylvania, Pawnee, Indiana, and Greendale, Colorado. So what if some of these are fictitious? They may paint a better picture of America than the New York we see on TV.