November 29, 2021

French TV crime drama ‘Spotless’ puts a spotlight on the dark side of cleaning

Ever been to a crime scene? No, me neither. But Jean Bastiere (Marc-André Grondin from C.R.A.Z.Y.) has. In fact, he makes a living from hanging round crime scenes. The sexy Frenchman carefully reconstructs the gruesome deed committed and takes a painfully close look at blood as well as brain spatters while basking in the glory of intimate knowledge of how the grim reaper has yet snatched away another mortal soul … after which Jean gets his mop and bucket out because he is not – as we might have assumed – a forensic expert but a crime scene cleaner. Yes, this is an actual profession and a particularly gory one at that.


‘Spotless’ is the first scripted drama of the NBC Universal owned cable channel Esquire Network (available in the UK on Netflix), which has so far entertained a predominantly male audience with programs about cars, food and luxury bars. Esquire’s new flagship show has already been broadcast by the French CANAL+ (‘Le Revenants’/’The Returned’) that produced the drama in cooperation with Munich-based Tandem Communications (‘Crossing Lines’) and Canadian production company Rosetta Media (‘The Pinkertons’).

One might think that these days no stone has been left unturned in the world of TV crime fiction. Small screen audiences have already been subjected to the wrongdoings of a forensic blood spatter analyst/serial killer (‘Dexter’), a chemistry teacher/drug kingpin (‘Breaking Bad’), a shy teenage motel owner/serial killer (‘Bates Motel’) and a taxidermist-turned murderer (Earl Bulford in ‘Criminal Minds’).

But a crime scene cleaner? A brilliant idea although the execution is not altogether smooth. Still, Matt Hanna, Esquire’s Head of Original Programming, feels compelled to promote the show in no uncertain terms: “Esquire Network proudly broke the genre barriers offering a series that combined elements of danger and drama with a sharp satirical edge”, boasted Hanna when he announced the Season 2 renewal – in other words the series carries the all too familiar hallmarks of every hip TV show or Hollywood movie (anti-heroes, family crisis, plenty of sex). Despite the buzz the makers of ‘Spotless’ (created and written by BAFTA award winner Ed McCardie and Corinne Marrinan) haven’t exactly re-invented the wheel, albeit they might have replaced a few spokes.

Two of these are the leads, the French brothers Jean and Martin Bastiere (Denis Ménochet from Inglorious Basterds). Although initially penned as two opposing forces (good vs evil, if you like) large, overlapping areas of dark common ground become visible in the course of the first series – they share so much more than an abusive childhood in rural France. After seven years of being apart, Martin, a petty career crook, suddenly turns up at his brother’s doorstep in London with a dead (but pretty) drug mule in the trunk of his car and a big plethora of crime-stained dirty laundry in tow.

After some convincing, Jean decides to mop up his brother’s mess only to get sucked right into a dark world of organised crime, which means there is a whole lot more mopping up to be done (literally and figuratively). The cosy, albeit slightly repressed domestic bliss of the Bastiere household that Martin uproots with his rustic Gallic charms and warped sense of decency (he intervenes, when catching a neighbour verbally abusing his wife, only to shag her a few minutes later) gradually morphs into a twisted and irreverent world of murder and mayhem in which long buried secrets are unearthed more often than disposable gloves are replaced at a crime scene.

As it turns out, Jean is rather versatile – he is a loving husband, father of two adorable kids and at the same time an obsessive-compulsive liar. Not only has the Frenchman been nurturing a long-standing affair with the beautiful Tanya Fear (Claire Wiseman) but he has also plastered over the fiscal cracks in his ailing cleaning business by borrowing heavily against the family home. “L’habit ne fait pas le moine” as the French so aptly put it, “the vestment does not make the monk.”

The catalyst for these ugly revelations is Jean’s rapidly growing entanglement with organized crime fuelled by financial problems that he hopes to resolve with bundles of cash (in brown envelopes – how predictable) from British mobster Nelson Clay (Brendan Coyle from ‘Downton Abbey’). Unlike most superhero crimefighters, Jean’s ‘employment’ by the British underworld requires no alter ego since he does for them what does best – mopping up crime scenes. Apparently, he is so good at it that an entire gaggle of London’s bad boys (sorry, no bad girls) is keen on his services.

Unfortunately, Jean’s attractive wife Julie (Miranda Raison) is less excited about his newly blossoming career prospects and….well, I shall let you find that out for yourself.

There is a lot of good that can be said about ‘Spotless’. London provides an ambient backdrop for criminal shenanigans, the two French siblings are well cast and fun to watch in their ever-growing dependence on each other. The French crooks trying to hunt down Martin are also comically funny and menacing at the same time but all that glitters is not gold. With the exception of Nelson Clay’s brother Victor (great performance by Liam Garrigan exceeding in the role of a deeply disturbed necrophiliac), the remaining band of British gangsters seem like characters straight from a Gilbert and Sullivan show; a bunch of fun-loving mavericks with firearms.

Most notably, Brendan Coyle struggles to convince as a heavyweight hoodlum in his perpetual effort to act the gentleman gangster who is all gentleman but no gangster. Maybe it has been become more difficult for script writers to invent criminals since Roberto Saviano’s ‘Gomorrha’ but I fail to see how a nice guy like Nelson Clay with his polished manners and refined tastes could strike fear in the heart of fellow evildoers. Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino), head of a Neapolitan crime family in ‘Gomorrha’, is driven by a psychotic lust for power; Nelson Clay is driven by the lust to grow his own vegetables.

Julie’s sister Nina (Lucy Akhurst), the effing and blinding solicitor, is another near catastrophic miscast. A desperate yet futile attempt to breathe new life into the cliché of middle-class poshknobs embarrassing themselves by mimicking working class rough-housing.

Other than that I enjoyed watching ‘Spotless’. Really.


By Frank Diebel

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