The week in TV: Witnesses and The Spoils Before Dying

(Published here at Celebmix)

It’s finally saturated itself – the postmodern neo-noir-thriller-crime-drama, or whatever it’s called. What is noir anyway? Anything now remotely crime related is noir. The dictionary informs me it’s a genre of crime film or fiction characterised by cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity. That list could pretty much cover any television detective series, from Inspector Morse to Colombo, (ok, maybe not Colombo, but you get the idea).

I’d proffer another definition: a crime drama with a central brooding nihilistic character (or the entire cast in the dismally poor True Detective Season 2); panoramic shots of highways or lonesome dead trees in dry meadows (saturated film); long drawn out shots of people inhaling tobacco; solo jazz singers in down and out bars surrounded by strangely inanimate shadowy figures slowly sipping hard liquor. Did I mention that the new series of True Detective is crap?

In this vein, then, The Spoils Before Dying (Fox), a follow up to last year’s Spoils of Babylon, parodies film noir and the subsequent French La Nouvelle Vague reworking of it. Jazz pianist Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams from The Wire) turns private eye when singer Fresno Foxglove goes missing. That’s basically it for the 20-minute opening episode; that along with Will Farrell’s wearily unfunny prologue and epilogue (stupidly mocking Orson Welles), and we’re left with around 10 minutes of content. Not a waste of time then.

So, noir, booze, bills, clubs, coppers and dead people – everything you want in a noir parody right? Well, no, because none of it makes any sense at all. Stylistically it is spot on: smoke drenched scenes in boozy nightclubs, a woozy jazz soundtrack, a brilliant cast; the problem with this noir parody, ironically, is that it’s a parody. It would have been far more successful had they cut out the lame Airplane type humour, which irritatingly disrupts its elegant style, and took itself more seriously like LA Confidential – now that was a film parody worth watching.

In keeping with the French connection then, anybody who’s ever sat through an afternoon of French television will be frankly amazed that the nation ever invented anything, let alone modern filming techniques; but don’t worry this isn’t going to veer off into a spiel of Le French Bashing, as crime drama Witnesses (Channel 4) was rather watchable, it ticks all the right boxes, albeit in a conventionally obvious European noir way (a bit like American noir, but not as cool).

My favourite bit had to be the opening credits, which reminded me of a mix between an 80’s pop video and the opening credits to Gordon Ramsey’s Hotel Hell. Either way, it was as tacky and sticky as blue tack: the music, the blowing hair and the bizarre appearance of the wolf from Game of Thrones – which, I’m guessing was stuck in to add a bit of dark mystery (It’ll have something to do with her dreams). Of course, the bird’s eye panoramic shots of highways and deserted bleak landscapes were lifted straight from True Detective and lead detective Sandra (Marie Dompnier) is based on every television detective ever – she’s got OCD instead of commitment/alcohol issues or whatever it usually is.

Witnesses shoves mysterious down our throats like it wants to chokes us. It begins with the discovery of three bodies carefully arranged in a show home to look like the perfect family. And if that’s not mysterious enough, there’s also a photograph in the upstairs bedroom of mysterious retired police officer Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte), who behaves very mysteriously throughout (in fact, he barely speaks or even moves his head – a bit like a French Roger Moore).

They shouldn’t have called it Witnesses though, because there are none, which makes everything even more mysterious. I guess since there are more detective dramas now than Chinese people, you’re inevitably going to run out of catchy titles. Even more mysterious than anything else are some of the subtitle translations, “We’re in deep shit” reads one and “some bloke” reads another, “bastard copper” says one – not very French noir then. I’m sure the British public with its insatiable appetite for European crime dramas, will love it. Just give me Colombo any day.


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