Why France Slags Americans, Loves American TV. Plus: What About Their Shows?

Photo: HBO; Canal+

I’ve had many a conversation about American versus French pop culture with my Parisian friend Yaële Simkovitch, a script doctor who writes for Tess Magazine (sort of like a French Slate meets Jezebel), has hosted Paris fan summits for Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is the preferred translator of Joss Whedon when he comes to Paris. Simkovitch knows the American TV landscape inside and out and has strong ideas about how it stacks up compared to French TV. Here, we chat about hot French TV shows (and what they’re lacking, in her opinion), what French folks think about Girls and True Detective and why she thinks France won’t have its own Lena Dunham or Mindy Kaling for a long time coming.

I know you are no fan of “French TV versus American TV.” Is TV getting better in France?
We’re trying to change. There’s a lot of ambition, with networks beginning to hire younger people who grew up watching American and British TV. But we don’t have the same skill sets. We think of scripted TV as a director’s job. Our most famous film screenwriters are all directors, such as Arnaud Desplechin and Christophe Honoré. And with TV, you really need a strong writer.

Any bright spots in recent years?
There’s one show that’s not bad, Un Village Français. It’s about a small village in France during WWII, with the Nazi collaboration but also the Resistance. The characters are a little stereotypical but, as the years tick off through WWII, it makes for interesting content. As you hear a lot about French TV: “It’s good for something French.” There’s also an English-French co-produced cop show set in Paris called Spiral, or Engrenages in French.

Are there any French shows with great characters, such as Mad Men’s Don and Peggy, or Walter White?
Bref, a word that is like a conversational filler, like “So anyway …”, was a really short-format show, episodes of two to four minutes with a no-name main character. It’s over now, but it was a phenomenon. It was about a 30-year-old Parisian guy and his issues, with a real French spirit. It wasn’t trying to duplicate an American, British, or Swedish show. The guy was a little lost, sort of like how Lena Dunham represents her generation a bit, and it was about how young Parisians are stuck between two worlds, which kind of represents the whole malaise of French society, with France not knowing how to define itself in the new, global, neoliberal era. The main guy had a very self-hating arrogance, very typical of the Parisian male. It captured how Parisian men and women can be very free about hooking up but still not very gender-equality oriented.

What about the show The Returned, about a French village in which the dead start to reappear? That’s attracted quite a few fans in the U.S., and A&E here is planning an American version with a showrunner from Lost and a writer from True Detective.
It’s an exception here in that the director is one of the creators. It’s the first time I’ve heard French people talking a lot about a French TV show. I had to show my boss how to download it on iTunes, she wanted to see it so badly. The second season is coming. Americans love it, like, “Ooh, the French do storytelling.” But it’s not as well done as they may think. One of the first scenes was the villagers in a support group, which is an American thing and still not something you’d typically see in France. Americans still expect us to give them a Truffaut nouvelle vague, in which the acting wasn’t very good. We still don’t know how to go anywhere with a story. It’s all moments and aesthetics. We run away from substance. We feel like we can’t do it better than our old, famous writers and philosophers, so why try?

If French TV storytelling evolved, what would it look like?
Maybe a bit more like the very popular daytime drama Plus Belle La Vie. Most snobs say it’s crappy, but it actually tackles social themes French TV [doesn’t] touch, such as gay characters, Arab characters. They did a gay wedding when that whole issue was blowing up in France. There was also a  show called Pigalle La Nuit, a critical success. It was set in Pigalle, about a guy looking for his sister, who may or may not have become a prostitute, and they used actual real Pigalle people in the background. It was a work of art. And there’s also a show, Ainsi Soient-Ils, which is a play on “Amen,” about five men from different backgrounds in seminary school. They’re going to tackle gay marriage in season two.

I’m sure you know that here in the U.S. everyone is calling it “The Golden Age” of TV.
It’s the Silver Age now, isn’t it? I thought The Sopranos was the Golden Age.

Oh, okay. What do Frenchies make of American TV right now? It’s very clear to me from Facebook that shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones are hugely popular in France as well.
I find it hilarious how many French people are critical of America and yet watch these shows. They think that Americans are not evolved socially. When they think of America, they think of small towns in Texas without realizing that that’s only half of Americans, and the other half is producing these shows in L.A. and New York. They pretend they don’t like American values, but they gobble up The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, Scandal 

Do you think American TV projects American values?
I think when the political cleavage between red and blue states got stronger in the 2000s, Hollywood really went liberal, and liberal values are very well reflected on TV. Diversity, gay characters, strong female characters — so much so that when American TV shows don’t have diversity, it becomes a big deal.

You mean the debate over the first-season whiteness of Girls?
French people don’t even understand that debate. They actually think American TV shows have to have racial quotas, and they often resent the character of color because they think he or she is a token.

So, which other shows do you think project American values?
Certainly the Housewives franchise. Reality TV here comes with terrible dubbing about plastic surgery. I think the prettiness and thinness of American TV actors is jarring for us, because we’ve seen that real Americans don’t look like that. But aside from that, True Detective is a big deal here as the latest show to represent the excellence of American TV. And in the ‘90s, we all grew up fantasizing about having an American high school. We expected to get lockers, cheerleading squads, and proms because we were watching 90210 and Buffy.

Did that stuff catch on in France because of American TV?
No, it’s too fantastical for us. A couple of glee clubs started here because of Glee, but I think they’ve since died down. I do know someone who was just elected mayor in a town in France whose campaign manager was obsessed with House of Cards. French folks loved that show, but they got lost in season two because they didn’t understand the intricacies of American politics.

I have to ask you about your personal obsession with Buffy and with Joss Whedon.
It took me years to understand why that show hooked me. But now I do. It’s the best TV show ever written about learning to become an adult, the difficulties of becoming a human being, and the ethical aspects of having power and talent. You can think about it 25,000 different ways. It aired here on Saturday nights in the ‘90s. I think it was a bigger success here than in the U.S.

Is there anything distinctly American about Buffy?
She’s a California blonde and a cheerleader. I think you can also see her as America. She uses force and violence before being a diplomat. And she’s literally the only superpower in her world.

What American TV show has the biggest hold on you right now?
Girls. It’s experimenting with the form. Lena Dunham is trying to say something that hasn’t been said, and she doesn’t care about backlash. I don’t think she even knows what she’s trying to say, but I think it’s about how she shows her body and shows that’s she’s not just the ugly girl or the hypersexual girl — she’s all those things together, which make her human. The Mindy Project is the network version of Girls. She’s also not obviously likable and she’s chubby and she’s trying to figure herself out.

Will we soon see a Mindy Lahiri or Hannah Horvath in France?
No. We have 40 years of gender reflection to do here to catch up to the U.S. — independent women here don’t want to be feminists. We’re not good at talking about ourselves and making men see us from our point of view. I think it’s because women here like to keep the mystery of human feminine seduction. Having said that, the reaction to Girls here has been pretty embracing. I even know some guys who like Lena Dunham. So it’s frustrating to me that we can’t have female characters like that here.

If you made an awesome French TV show, what would it have?
It’d be set in an apartment building with people from all walks of life — a Muslim, a delinquent, a Jew, a feminist woman. But real people, not stock characters. A story line could be about a water leak. Something really silly and human.

I know you’re a Mad Men fan. Have you watched the mid-season finale?
Not yet. But I’m worried about Peggy. She’s my character. I know it’s really silly and intellectual of me, but can she just be happy? I’m just a girl like that. There’s something cynical about leaving people in bad places for the sake of it. It’s very French, actually, and it drives me crazy.

France Slags Americans, Loves American TV: Why?