|Much hype surrounds the upcoming Gallic version of "Law & Order" on dominant commercial broadcaster TF1.|
But TV audiences here won't have to wait until the fall to see a French show that looks a lot like another U.S. cop series.
On Jan. 12 TF1 unveiled the first two episodes of "R.I.S. Police scientifique," an adaptation of an Italian forensic procedural akin to "CSI."
Execs hope the new skein, produced inhouse by Alma Prods., will attract 8 million viewers -- the gold standard for Gallic drama. "CSI," by comparison, garnered more than 9 million viewers here last fall, putting it well ahead of previous ratings for a U.S. show on French TV.
"R.I.S." marks a revolution in French drama-making.
"It's the first time there's been an adaptation for French primetime," says producer Caroline Hertman. "The original Italian show, which is very good in its own right, served as a pilot that we were able to improve on."
It also meant Alma could turn around the eight-episode skein in just nine months, rather than the two-year development lead time on most original series.
Several other things are innovative from a French drama point of view.
"R.I.S." is 45-50 minutes long, compared with the traditional 90-minute French drama.
Storylines arc across episodes, with each installment ending in a cliffhanger. This is ground-breaking in France, where cop shows come in stand-alone episodes with stories that don't overlap in order to give broadcasters flexibility to air episodes in any order.
Both "R.I.S." and the Gallic "L&O" cost around $1 million per episode.
However, unlike production of the Gallic "L&O," which is being closely supervised by Dick Wolf and NBC Universal, French creative folk had free rein with "R.I.S.," says screenwriter Stephane Kaminka, who turned the Rome-set skein into something altogether French.
Kaminka has written many shows for TF1 in the past 12 years, including the top-rating "Julie Lescaut" and "Une femme d'honneur."
"TF1 handed us the scripts and DVDs of the first eight episodes, and we were left to get on with it," he says. "We watched the Italian episodes but couldn't understand a thing, and so we gave up looking at them."
As for the episode length, "52 minutes gives you no time for explanation," Kaminka observes. "You only show key moments of the story and you have to trust the audience's intelligence to work out what happened in between."
Although Italy is culturally close to France, there was material that wouldn't work for French audiences.
The Italian forensic police carry guns, which their French counterparts don't.
"In the Italian show there is only one woman on the team, and she's a rookie," Kaminka says. "That wouldn't seem realistic in France, so we turned one of the male characters into a woman."
The Italian treatment of religion and the role of the mother were other subjects that required reworking.
"In one plotline a bomb goes off in a church. Shocking though it is, we knew an incident like that doesn't have the same resonance for French viewers, so we told it differently," Kaminka says.
Unusually for a French cop show, "R.I.S." also shows off Paris to great effect.
"French series aren't usually set in Paris because it's complicated to shoot here, and there is the fear that it will be taken as too Paris-centric and alienate the majority of viewers in the rest of France," explains Kaminka.
Does "R.I.S." look anything like "CSI"?
The Gallic version is slicker and more modern visually than the Italo show, making it closer to the American skein. The murder cases are more banal than "CSI's."
However, unmistakable signs of its Frenchness include the flirting that goes on between male and female team members.
"There was no deliberate attempt to Frenchify the show. As we are French ourselves, that would have been impossible," Kaminka says. "We just tried to reflect as realistically as possible how things are in France."