Vous aimez la télévision française?
You’re not alone. French TV is having a bit of a moment right now.
Lupin, Netflix’s French crime thriller about a heist at the Louvre, is predicted to reach 70 million households in its first month. That’s just 12 million shy of the record-breaking numbers Bridgerton achieved for the streaming giant.
That’s not bad for a ten-part series that requires the vast majority of us Brits to watch with subtitles or grapple with the dubbed British language version.
And it’s not just Lupin. Loads of us are streaming the fourth series of French drama Call My Agent on Netflix, while The Bureau on Prime, which aired its final season last summer,is finally being discovered by a whole new audience.
So what’s with our French TV love affair?
“Competition has been ferocious between France’s channels and producers these last few years,” explains Yves Bigot, TV producer and former editor-in-chief of the BBC’s French-themed Rapido series.
“Some of them have finally understood that they had to raise their game if they want to compete in the global television business brought on by Netflix and co.”
The French TV bug has taken hold across the pond too.
“The Bureau, the show that everyone in your life is telling you to watch (they’re right, you should),” was New Yorker writer Alexandra Scwartz’s take on Twitter, referencing a piece she wrote on the Stateside emergence of The Bureau and Call My Agent.
So what have our European neighbours got so right?
“They have been studying the way that the Americans and British work and imported those techniques,” explains Yves Bigot.
“French fiction used to be made by one sole writer, one sole producer, inspired by God or the devil, very much working on their own as if they were novelists or painters.”
Yves believes Lupin is Americanised and The Bureau, too, is inspired by “the very best American police shows”.
“Which is the reason why it has very bad press here!” he jokes about Lupin’s lukewarm reception in France.
Appealing to an international audience would have been a consideration for all of these shows, says HuffPost France entertainment editor, Louise Wessbecher.
“I think that Netflix and other streaming platforms have a big part in this success by sharing French TV all over the world, and dubbing is really easier than subtitles for a lot of people,” she says.
But Louise believes it might be a stretch labelling Lupin a French show.
“It’s produced by Netflix, the director is a French guy, Louis Leterrier, but he’s been working in Hollywood for years. The showrunner is British, and [actor] Omar Sy is well known abroad – so it’s more an international show,” she says.
On the other hand, Louise sees Call My Agent and The Bureau as examples of classic French TV.
“For me they’re the archetype,” she says. “The setting, the dialogue and the humour are typically French, so the success abroad is more surprising.”
Netflix say they’ve seen the viewing hours of non-English content grow 90% from 2019 to 2020 in the UK, clearly indicating a rise in interest and demand for foreign storytelling.
It’s hard to assess how much of this growth is down to Netflix marketing shows like Lupin at UK audiences, as it won’t reveal that information, but either way, the thriller has likely whet British appetites for more French programming.
Constance Jamet, a writer for France’s Le Figaro TV Mag, agrees with Louise about the power of the streaming platform.
“I think Netflix helps a lot,” she says. “It makes these dramas available to the whole world.”
Constance adds that the impact of the platform pushing out more foreign titles as well as word of mouth recommendations means “people are more ready to watch something with subtitles.”
“The Bureau is a bit more mysterious, it is a really well done thriller which speaks of contemporary issues,” says Constance of the show’s success.
And she believes Call My Agent offers something entirely different: “It’s very much a French comedy with slapstick, estrangements of the hearts and witty one liners, with a lot of French sentimentality about cinema d’auteur, the French movie Golden Age.”
Perhaps escaping to foreign lands via their screens is the perfect tonic for Brits stuck at home right now. Recent BBC drama The Serpent, set in Thailand, was another much-needed dose of escapist travel porn.
Having binged many of our favourite shows, is it simply a case of Brits experimenting more and taking a chance on shows they might normally pass on?
“Certainly so,” believes Yves Bigot. “You go deeper into the platform’s offerings, including foreign shows. In the case of Lupin, as with the excellent Casa Del Papel from Spain, it also shows how Netflix can successfully promote the shows they want to make successful.”
While Louise agrees French TV has become “a kind of trend” recently, she asserts that it’s “really not the first time that French TV is popular abroad… Once you’ve liked the atmosphere, the tone of a French TV show, you’ll be more open to others.”
And the feeling is mutual...
“I’m personally feeling the same thing with British TV,” Louise says. “I’m in love with the way you can build a dark ambiance with suspense. I’m always really enthusiastic when a friend recommends a British show.”
Lupin and Call My Agent are available to stream on Netflix. Seasons 1-5 of The Bureau are available to stream on Prime.