TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has been waiting for months to tell you about a TV show he just loves. It's a French spy series called "The Bureau." Season 5 is now available on the Sundance Now streaming service. John says he wishes he could watch two new episodes every single day until the end of time.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We all have TV programs that we consider the gold standard. In my case, I measure all sitcoms against "Roseanne," all social dramas against "The Wire" and all teen shows against "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." When it comes to spy sagas, my touchstone has long been the BBC's adaptations of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "Smiley's People." I've spent decades waiting for an espionage series to rival them. I've finally found one in "The Bureau," a smart, addictively suspenseful French series about the clandestine missions, office politics and kaleidoscopic personalities at France's big spy organization, the DGSE.
Created and overseen by Eric Rochant, "The Bureau" is beginning its fifth season on the Sundance Now streaming service. And if you haven't seen it, I would simply note that it may well be the best TV show in the world right now.
Mathieu Kassovitz stars as the bureau's most gifted agent, codenamed Malotru, who, in Season 1, returns to Paris from Damascus. Because he's a Frenchman on a French show, he's naturally fallen in love with a beautiful Syrian woman, whose life he's endangered with his spying. To save her, he concocts an elaborate scheme that sends impossible-to-summarize ripples through the next four seasons. These involve everyone from the CIA to Russian intelligence to ISIS double agents, and they threaten the security of his colleagues, a crew of hugely enjoyable characters. These include the young fearless Marina - that's Sara Giraudeau - who goes undercover in Iran and starts losing her nerve. There is the bearish Raymond, played by Jonathan Zaccai, who's obsessed with women. There's Malotru's brainy handler, Marie-Jeanne, played by Florence Loiret Caille, who appears cursed with too much decency. And then there's the security-mad paranoiac known as JJA, who looks for traitors everywhere. He's played by Mathieu Amalric, whose pungent features you'll surely recognize.
As the new season begins, JJA is now in charge, and Malotru has reportedly been killed on the Ukrainian border, though we may not be so sure he's gone. Even as a daring new agent played by Louis Garrel poses as an arms dealer in Yemen, Marie-Jeanne has been working undercover at a luxury hotel in Cairo. Here, she gets into a car with the gruff Egyptian agent she's paying to protect her during a dangerous trip to the Sinai.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BUREAU")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Let me see your passport. 1975.
FLORENCE LOIRET CAILLE: (As Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul) What?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Did you bring something to cover your hair?
CAILLE: (As Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul) Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I will tell you to put it on. It has been a while since you had sex, hasn't it? Don't you miss it? That's my job. It should put your mind at ease knowing how well-informed I am.
POWERS: The great film director Francois Truffaut once observed that French storytelling begins with personalities. It's rooted in psychology, while American storytelling begins with situations. It's about what happens. With "The Bureau," Rochant and his team have found a way to split the difference. As it races from Paris and Algiers to Baku and Moscow, this cleverly plotted show sucks you in with cliffhangers worthy of Hollywood. You never stop worrying that Raymond will fall into the hands of ISIS or that the CIA will whack Malotru. And you're right to worry. Major characters get imprisoned, maimed, even killed.
Yet, even as it ratchets up tension, the show preserves the French knack for naturalistic acting. The cast is uniformly superb, and it offers a realistic vision of how character gets shaped by circumstance. We watch the bureau's one-time director Henri, willingly played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, go from seeming like a prim, office-bound functionary to becoming a hero in the field.
Bursting with well-observed detail, the show also serves up many spiffy bits of spy craft - how to beat a lie detector, how to take a beating, how not to lay out your personal effects on your hotel room nightstand. And because the show is French, we get an angle on the world that isn't our own. It's not merely that the CIA is portrayed as bullying. It's that the action occurs in places about which France either still feels a sense of colonial entitlement, like North Africa or Syria, or to which France has a vastly different relationship than the United States. Marina's undercover job in Tehran would be impossible for an American, and her plotline shows us life among the Iranian elite that we rarely, if ever, get to see on our screens.
Episode after episode, the show is so thoroughly compelling that you may find yourself wondering how authentic it actually is. But as John le Carre once remarked, spy stories don't have to be authentic. They merely need to be credible enough that we believe them. And trust me, you believe "The Bureau." Once it gets its hooks into you, you'll be spending long happy evenings on the edge of your seat.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the French TV series "The Bureau." Season 5 is now streaming on Sundance Now.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Susan Burton, author of the new memoir, "Empty," about her eating disorder. She also recently wrote an article about how difficult it is for people with eating disorders to be sheltering at home during the pandemic, constantly adjacent to the refrigerator. She's an editor at This American Life and wrote one of the show's famous stories, "Unaccompanied Minors," about being stranded at an airport shut down by a blizzard in 1988 at a stopover flying between her mother's house and her father's house after their divorce. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "BERIMBASS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "BERIMBASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.