I DO like to have a good foreign TV show on the boil. So I was pleased last night to discover The Out-Laws on Channel 4’s import channel, Walter Presents. This Belgian drama is shaping up to be a happy new addiction, although it did revive a sad memory.
You know how it can be at a funeral. You sit listening to the oration and wonder if you might have wandered into the wrong service. The gap between the person you knew and the person being summed up can sometimes be wide.
This happened to me almost twenty years ago. My great university friend, John, died far too young, in his early forties. His family were staunch Catholics and as a boy he had been to a Catholic public school, his memories of which were far from happy. The oration at his service, on a day when the rain never stopped falling, re-cast his life as a model of Catholic rectitude, picking up the pieces and placing them as a memorial to his religion.
The friend I had known hadn’t seemed religious at all. I didn’t know John’s other friends who were there on that day, but they too looked surprised at this holy account of his life.
Anyway that was a long time ago, although I still think of John. This idea of the gap between the person being honoured and the reality was given a delightful twist in The Out-Laws, a drama about five sisters, one of whom is married to a dreadful man called Jean-Claude Delcorps.
The sisters who weren’t married to the deceased all refer to him affectionately as “the Prick”. We soon discover why through a series of flashbacks capturing his appalling behaviour as a hateful, crank-calling, racist misogynist who makes his wife’s life a misery. The wife, Goedele, sticks up for her dreadful man, something that only further infuriates her four siblings.
Walter Presents says of this show that “this visually stunning Belgian blend of black comedy and crime thriller comes on like Desperate Housewives on acid”. Fair enough, although I rather thought the days when anything was compared to something else “on acid” were long behind us.
Aside from that unhelpful cliché, the description stands up.
When they were young, the five sisters made a blood pact to protect each other. In the spirit of that childhood pledge, the four women not married to the Prick decide to bump him off. These sisters really are doing it for themselves. They obviously succeed in the end, as the man lies in his coffin in his pyjamas, although why he is dressed like that has not yet been explained.
The running joke here is going to be how hard it can be to kill a man. In the first episode the sisters attempt to dispatch him by arranging a gas explosion at a summer hut where he is camping for the night. It all works beautifully, apart from one technical detail: their victim wanders out to find a signal for his phone just before the hut goes up. We know that they manage to kill him somehow, but not that way, and the drama is built around a series of failed murder attempts.
In the present, two insurance investigators undercover the murder plot in a desperate attempt not to bankrupt the family firm by having to pay out on the dead man’s life.
The writer of the show, Malin-Sarah Gozin, said in an interview with the Guardian: “I didn’t mean to write a comedy, it just turned out funny in a dark and disturbing way.”
There are parallels with Desperate Housewives and Gozin did visit that camp show’s writing room when she was developing her idea. She prefers to cite Danny DeVito’s Hitchcockian Throw Momma From The Train as a key inspiration: and that’s a good place to start.
Anyway I have only seen the first episode but on that basis, The Out-Laws promises to pull off the difficult trick of making a crime thriller funny and dark at the same time. It looks fantastic too.
Watching foreign TV is a great way to keep a handle on the rest of the world; and watching other European dramas keeps us in touch with the continent – never more important that now in the post-Brexit muddle that is modern Britain.
Tuning into other European TV shows also reminds us that while our own TV can be very good – and I am also loving The Secret Agent on BBC1 – other countries can show us a clever thing or two as well.