This article contains light spoilers from the first three episodes of Marseille.
If you peruse the internet today, you’ll find various reviews comparing the latest Netflix show to another Netflix series about political power and corruption, House of Cards. Obviously, it’s a fair comparison, but one that I wouldn’t make myself. House of Cards is yet another huge show I’m behind on, but I did find hints of another Netflix series in the fiber of this new show, set in France. Drugs, poverty, wealth, violence, and a setting unfamiliar to many-an-American eye? Marseille isn’t quite the French Narcos, but its first three episodes are compelling enough to hook anyone on the prowl for their next binge.
Gérard Depardieu plays Robert Taro, the mayor of Marseilles, and the series’ opening shot makes it clear that he’s got a bit of a drug problem. Taro is supposed to be on his way out of office, but the love for (or addiction to) political life keeps him in the game once he sees that dirty dealings are underway. Lucas Barre (Benoît Magimel) is his protégée?turned-faux responsible for said dirty dealings. The series, so far, follows the two as they try to uncover each other’s weaknesses, while maintaining their rock-n-roll-esque lifestyles. Barre is a ladies man, whose bedroom affairs are inextricable from his political life. Depardieu is a recovering addict who appears to have things under control for now, but is back to using on the job. There are little dramas unfolding everywhere that contribute to the political tension of the series, but one of the most interesting facets right now has to be the role Taro’s daughter plays in everything Julia Taro (Stéphane Caillard) is a budding journalist, desperate to make a name for herself away from her father’s shadow—so much so that she refuses to use his last name in her work. Her reporting sends her into the projects of Marseilles, as she’s fascinated by the unique positioning of this very much other world among her home life. The drug deals and violence she encounters there trickle down to the political world of her father—or, the violence, drugs and power struggles in her father’s world are trickling down to the projects. It’s not clear yet just how everything is connected, but the premise is intriguing.
“Here, the projects are in the city. Not on the edge, like Paris. That changes everything.”—Julia
Like Narcos, Marseille seems interested in the effects of the drug world for those living in poverty, versus those in power. Drugs, violence and corruption exist in both worlds, so Marseilles asks what Narcos (along with a show like The Wire) asked: Who are the real criminals?
What made Narcos brilliant was how it, almost immediately, planted you into Pablo Escobar’s world. We always felt like we were visitors in Colombia, but the series succeeded in making Escobar’s love for his country palpable (if very, very complicated). The police we ended up routing for, the criminals on his team, and those few politicians who stood up to him—they all had a passion for their culture and their people. Colombia was, indeed, another character on the series.
Marseille has not succeeded in creating such a character. Every other politician talks about the greatness of the city—what its future holds and what must be done to insure that the city port remains in step with the times (and financially flush), or true to its roots (and free of mafia control). “Marseille” is abundant in the dialogue, but its presence has not overwhelmed the show in the way I was hoping it would—and perhaps that’s another reason critics are finding it easy to make the House of Cards comparison. We haven’t seen or felt enough of the specifics that should make this French city seem worth fighting for, to fall in love with it yet. The French language and various character’s insistence on the greatness of Marseille is not enough, so far, to differentiate the setting of the drama from a political series set in D.C.
And perhaps the real problem with Marseille isn’t that it’s failed (three episodes in) to present its setting as another character. Maybe another argument could be made that the series presents its Marseille in the same way that it has many of its main characters. As the various plots unfold, and we are exposed to enough eros and thanatos to satisfy all manner of philosophy and psychology students, the characters remain at a distance. While we know their appetites and vices, we don’t quite know what makes them tick, or why we should be invested in their choices.
Three episodes in and the character that seems to be the most fascinating and three-dimensional is Géraldine Pailhas’ Rachel Taro—mother to Julia, and wife to the mayor. She’s got a serious passion, and her musicianship carries many a scene. By episode three, we discover that she’s suffering a great loss, and that she’s also capable of expressing a selflessness none of the other characters have. She demands that her husband remain in political life to fight for his city, even if it means more time away from his wife and daughter. But, because we’ve seen her playing and practicing her own craft—because her demand is rooted less in wifely duty and more in an artistic concern for the passions that drive us—the character does not read as another prototypical, endlessly supportive wife trope.
The jury, for me, is still out on the show. There’s plenty to work with, in terms of developing the characters (including Marseille itself) that we’ve been presented with so far. I’ve heard the murmurings of criticism against the series, but I wonder if such criticism might be a symptom of our era of Peak TV, where a flawed show that claims to be a representative of the Golden Age gets attacked for not being exceptional good. So far, Marseille is good enough TV for me.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.