Tuesday, July 5, 2016

TV Review: Marseille Season 1

Recently Netflix released a new original political drama, Marseille. As a person who enjoys political dramas in many forms I decided to give this French series a shot. I think it is fair to say I had a mixed experience with the series.

Marseille is a set in the city of the same name and the drama surrounds the municipal election. The main character, Robert Taro (Gerard Depardieu), has been the mayor of Marseille for twenty years. Taro strikes a sort of jovial, good-natured politician. Unlike many contemporary political dramas Taro does not come across as an anti-hero. He may have been a strong arm in municipal politics and taken advantage of his position, but his actions are within the norm of French political culture (as stated by the show).

Taro is poised to finally make his exit from political life and pass the baton to his successor, Deputy Mayor Lucas Barres (Benoit Magimel), with an election only a few weeks away. However, on Taro's final legacy project, converting the old port into a casino complex, Barres votes against him and reveals that his mentorship was a long con to take power away from Taro.

Barres' betrayal of Taro is baffling. The show has the decency to point this out itself. If Barres sat by quietly and did not confront him he would have been easily elected the new mayor within a month. Barres' explanation is flimsy, stating "Power isn't given, it is taken!" As the season progresses Barres' motivations become clearer, but hardly more satisfying.

Like many political dramas Marseille is a family drama as well. Taro's wife and daughter are prominent characters in the series. His wife Rachel (Geraldine Pailhas) is a talented musician who has stood steadfastly by Robert for years. Unlike in many other political dramas Taro seems to earnestly love his wife. His daughter Julia (Stephanie Caillard) has recently returned from university in Canada and is trying to start a career in journalism without using her father's name.

I confronted two major barriers while watching the series. I have no problem watching shows and films with subtitles but the formatting Netflix uses for its subtitles are horrendous. Netflix puts subtitles in a thin white text. Whenever a seen is bright of the lower third of the screen is white the text is illegible. I am fortunate to have some recollection of French and could sometimes follow the dialog itself, but it is hardly excusable.

The second barrier is ignorance of France's political structures and processes at the municipal level. Being a massive political nerd I have read many of the Wikipedia articles on how France's political system works, but even still there are elements that left me lost. I don't know what the Department does or is. Is it like a county, or a small province? The Department's Prefect appears in the municipal council and is a major character but I was ignorant of her place in the system.

For me there are two American political dramas that are most comparable to Marseille: The Wire and Boss. Marseille never really delivers on the sophistication of The Wire. The story spends time giving a surface level sketch at the poverty, crime and race problems in Marseille's public housing. Julia has a connection to the city's underside which grows over the season. It also plays with the intersection of crime and politics, but it is quite heavy handed. Boss is the much more apt point of comparison. In fact while watching the pilot I began to wonder if this was a French remake of Boss. A powerful, long-serving mayor at the end of his career trying to push through a big legacy project with secrets to hide and a daughter who spends time on the wrong side of the tracks. The way the season unfurls makes the comparison to Boss even closer.

I think it is fair to say that Marseille has soap opera elements. The affairs, the intrigue, the betrayals and the secrets feel reminiscent at times of North American soap operas. However, this interpretation may be more a product of French vs. American/Canadian/British television and film conventions. The emotions are rawer than in English dramas. At times when I scoffed at what I was seeing and listening to I considered that I am just unfamiliar with the conventions. I liked many of the flourishes in the show.

I believe the first act was strong and the series stumbles as it goes forward. The conflict between Barres and Taro is the heart of the story and I think the motivations just did not work for me. The ending of the series feels hollow to me. The closing scene is hardly built to. I enjoy some of the issues the series raises and the election itself is fascinating, but the conflict between the politicians is confusing given that I do not know how the system works. Party leaders argue over who will get what ward but coming from the fixed political geography of Canada that strikes me as bizarre and unclear.

As is probably clear by the review, I have mixed feelings about the series. The novelty appealed to me. The setting and visuals are fantastic. There was tremendous potential but the plot was so over the top as to lose me at points. I liked the Taro family and thought it was a smart take on a political family that is not often seen. At only eight episodes fans of political dramas have little to lose in checking out a few episodes, but it is fair to say it won't work for everyone.

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