An entertaining, sometimes hilarious, French police procedural featuring an eccentric, egotistical forensic medical examiner, a humorless cop, and chatty murder victims. What more could you want?
If you ask me, there’s so many crime shows streaming right now that it constitutes a crime all its own.
No, I know you didn’t ask, but, really, who’s got the time for all this mayhem and mystery? Not me, by decades. But does anyone listen? No. Crime shows stream on in a bloody blur, packed with cliches and tropes that are as familiar as buttered toast.
There’s some tweedy comfort and wit to be found (Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Endeavour) or some compelling subject, story, or stylish innovation (Prime Suspect, Criminal: United Kingdom, Kieler Street, Mother Goose) but mostly I just thumb the sweep button.
“Serial Killer?” No. “Tough alcoholic detective with haunted past?” Uh-uh. “Tough alcoholic detective with haunted past pursues a serial killer.” Please. “How about while sobbing all the way through!?” STOP IT!
Sometimes you can nail the culprit before the credits are even over. Recently, Mrs. B and I sampled a series called The Sounds and within five minutes, we knew (a) spouse was going to be murdered; and (b) spouse would turn out to be not dead after all. (No, I really haven’t spoiled a thing.) The towering, fog-shrouded New Zealand landscapes are enchanting, but there’s Lord of the Rings and a dozen You Tube documentaries for that.
So how do we find good shows when there’s so many fish in the pond (too many floating upside down)? Mostly, we randomly cast a line in the stream with a muttered “Oh, what the hell.” That’s how we found Balthazar, a French-produced mystery series that just dropped its third season on Acorn (not on MHZ, where we’d expect). This one’s a keeper.
Vintage TV buffs will be reminded of Quincy, M.E., a 1970s-1980s series starring Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple) as a gruff n’ jowly L.A. forensic medical examiner whom the cops call in when stumped by murder (as they always are . . . hey, what are we paying all these taxes for, anyway!?).
Balthazar is a keeper thanks largely to its star, the ebullient and manly Tomer Sisley as the title character, an M.E. living and working in contemporary Paris. Balthazar is one-third Quincy, a half quart of Sherlock Holmes, with the rest James Bond. He shares Holmes’ encyclopedic mind and superpower perceptions. He also has Holmes’ righteous eccentricity and overweening confidence. As ripped as young Brad Pitt, and resembling Sacha Baron Cohen — if Cohen played Bond — Sisley, an award-winning comedian, shines in every scene. His eyes are deep and dark but still twinkle with a real star’s self-awareness. He’s a real find, a joy and pleasure to watch. (But for the French accent, he’d be a worthy 007.)
His James Bond side, of course, allows Balthazar to indulge in all sorts of dare deviltry: Balthazar runs down villains on a hang glider. Balthazar catches suicides in mid-air. Balthazar out races cops and villains alike in his orange roadster. (Unlike Bond, Balthazar, the vainest of peacocks, has almost no taste whatsoever.)
Among this charming weave of quirks, here’s one more: Balthazar talks to dead people. His best friend among these shades is his late wife. To humanize him, and using the notion that every clown hides a broken heart, the series’ writers (led by Clothilde Jamin and Clélia Constantine) give him the requisite “trauma past”: a dozen years ago his wife, Lise, was gruesomely murdered (the killer seemingly caught…). To cope with this shattering event, he’s resurrected Lise (Pauline Cheviller) as a ghost wandering the funhouse of his mind, never dead and always there for him. Their scenes nicely walk a tightrope between humor and poignancy.
Then there’s Balthazar’s other imaginary friends — murder victims who kibitz about the autopsy table, nagging him for justice as he and his team slice open their corpses. (The show is blunt about these matters and not for the squeamish.) As with Lise, the scenes range from haunting to genuinely amusing, especially when victims from centuries ago drop by. (Side note: I used to consider “French comedy” an oxymoron, but in recent years, French filmmakers seem to have caught on to comedy’s underlying music. At least I’m actually laughing these days.)
Thankfully, Sisley’s star power doesn’t outshine his fellow cast members. Chief among them is stern but winsome Héléne de Fougerolles as Captain Bach of the Criminal Division, with whom Balthazar engages in a pas de deux reminiscent of the Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd dance in Moonlighting. De Fougerolles makes Bach’s struggle to keep her game face on both touching and funny, even when Balthazar’s cheeky façade and pushy self-regard prove irresistible. The show gets a goofy kick out of showing Balthazar up while admiring his indispensable skills at solving homicides.
Balthazar’s lab assistants provide more fun as Fatim (Philypa Phoenix) and Eddy (Côme Levin) prove equal to their boss in eccentricity. Eddy’s carrot-top, loud-mouth geek is well-contrasted with Fatim’s brittle neurotic manner. Their love-hate relationship with each other and their overbearing boss makes a good three-way act. With Bach’s assistant, played by Yannig Samot, ably carrying out straight-man duties, the entire cast makes for an enjoyable ensemble. The show has a playful spirit, a rare quality these grim days.
The scripts are mostly pretty decent and intriguing as they cleverly riff on such familiar works as The Wicker Man, Fight Club, Contagion, Silence of the Lambs, and, of course, Conan Doyle. The usual cheats, absurdities and shortcuts are there, but the show is so well done, with confident stylish direction, cinematography and editing, you’ll let it slide and that’s no small feat. Unfortunately, the third season ends on a downbeat note we hope will be dispelled by a fourth season. Balthazar casts a cheery glow and it would be a shame for it to conclude otherwise.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. “Visconti Noir” a look at the surprising film noir of Italian cinematic grandmaster Luchino Visconti is in the November 2020 issue of Noir City e-mag. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.