The Weekend's Viewing: subtitles are the modish accessory of the moment

Spiral, Sat, BBC4 // The Spa, Sun, Sky Living

Times are pretty good for those of us who like to relax on a Saturday night with a bit of quiet reading. First we had The Killing to keep us going, and then Borgen and now BBC4 serves up series four of Spiral, or Engrenages as the French call it. Engrenages means gears, which makes sense of the interlocking credit sequences and, I think, more sense as a title, since the series is concerned with the faulty synchromesh of justice, lubricated – as often as not – with short cuts, prevarication and outright lies. It also has subtitles, once viewed as ratings poison by schedulers but the modish accessory of the moment ever since the surprise success of The Killing. So fashionable are they, in fact, that I found myself watching Silent Witness the other day and thinking, “That cadaver would look so much more intellectually chic if it just had a few lines of dialogue running beneath its gaping chest cavity.”

Spiral is to The Killing what Slenda is to sugar. It has a moody, disaffected female lead in the form of Captain Laure Berthaud. It has bureaucratic superiors who hinder investigations for political expediency. It even has policemen slicing the night into chunks with the beams of their torches. As a substitute it really isn't bad, but there's something about the flavour that just comes across as a little artificial and synthesised. It also has a less Scandinavian attitude to procedure. In The Killing, Sarah Lund tended to be out on her own when bending the rules. Here, everybody's at it, intimidating witnesses, stalling lawyers and – rather more gravely – shooting suspects before they've had a chance to surrender. At the end of the last series, Laure did just that, and the investigation into that death is one of the things she has to cope with here.

What is quite good about Spiral – though this is hardly unique to it either – is its sense of political texture. The initiating corpse in this series was that of a political activist who'd blown himself up while making a bomb and been dumped in the woods by his comrades. And their cause – the alleged injustice of France's treatment of illegal immigrants – was also represented by the plight of a Malian refugee facing deportation, after a racist bank official has informed on him. The underlying theme – whether violent action can be justified when due process can't deliver justice – has an obvious echo with Berthaud's plight, as she faces the possibility of losing her job because she didn't issue a serial killer with an Intention to Shoot certificate before pulling the trigger. And to be honest, having sat through two episodes feeling slightly superior about its deficiencies in relation to The Killing, I now find myself with a distinct hankering to watch the next two.

It's a feeling that's less powerful in the case of The Spa, Derren Litten's new comedy for Sky Living, but it isn't entirely absent, which may be all that the first episode of a sitcom can realistically hope for. Rebecca Front stars as Alison, the exasperated manager of a gym and health club, dealing with staff members who are either dangerously dim-witted (one of them informs a prospective client that she is “clinically a beast” after a mishearing) or not quite aligned to Alison's sense of style. She has to have words with the handyman Eric over the alarming snugness of his builder's shorts, though his compliance with her request that he find a looser pair doesn't end well. “Oh dear... the beast's escaped from its shackles,” he says genially, when it's pointed out that he's revealing more than he might want to. There's also Marcus, a wheelchair-using aerobics instructor with a tart turn of phrase. “I was Leighton Buzzard's Slimmer of the Decade,” Alison tells him indignantly at one point. “My very, very belated congratulations,” replies Marcus, after a most speaking inspection of her torso.

 

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