Too often, the spies we encounter in pop culture come off as reductive imitations of the real thing. They fall somewhere on a spectrum between 007’s sophistication and the two-dimensional tough guys who dispense Jack Bauer-style violence. It’s enough to make a fan of the narrative style popularized by writers like John Le Carre — which romanticizes old-school tradecraft like brush passes and dead drops, and favors the slow-burn storytelling of long cons that only reveal themselves in the fullness of time — positively retch in disgust.
What, then, is a lover of the genre to do? Answer: Stop whatever you’re doing and make time to binge The Bureau — a French spy drama that’s been called France’s equivalent of Homeland, and which is, in every way, magnificent.
Season 5 debuted on Thursday in the US (on the Sundance Now channel) but viewers would do well to first dive into Seasons 1-4 which are available directly through Sundance Now or via the Sundance Now channel add-on you can attach to your Amazon Prime Video subscription (you can also buy the individual episodes via iTunes, if you like). Like the title suggests, much of the action in Le Bureau des Légendes, as it’s known in France, takes place in and around an office. That makes this series something of a workplace drama — albeit one that’s interrupted by plenty of sequences “in the field,” as well as of sumptuous Parisian vistas for audiences to lust over, not to mention spooks hunched over computers or around conference room tables, mapping out operations that unfold a long way from home.
Creator Eric Rochant spoke with BGR about the series, previous seasons of which have topped the iTunes TV episode download charts when they’ve become available in the US. What you need to know: Things are set in a “bureau” of the Dírection Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, or D.G.S.E. — France’s equivalent of the CIA. The protagonist is French intelligence officer Guillaume Debailly (aka “Malotru,” played by actor Mathieu Kassovitz who American audiences will recognize from the movie Amélie), and the seemingly authentic tradecraft that he and his fellow spies employ is fascinating to watch. Likewise, this is a show where you have to read between the lines almost every time a character speaks, which may or may not have been informed by the fact that the series was able to get access to the DGSE during production (Rochant is coy on the particulars — the whole, “If I tell you, I’d have to kill you” thing, presumably).
“It’s a show about this line of work, the intelligence world, and I always felt that doing this show is a real opportunity to describe the work, to describe the universe, for people who don’t know it,” Rochant tells BGR. “This world is intriguing, it’s mysterious, and people really want a look inside this world but they can’t get it in real life, because it’s secret.”
In each season, the “bureau” stares down existential threats to France and its agents, everything from ISIS terrorists to Russian hackers. DGSE agents, analysts, bureaucrats, and bosses are seen studying files, dispatching orders, and monitoring events in real-time. A major storyline in Season 5 is the hunt for a leaker, some persons unknown who disclosed DGSE secrets to a newspaper that ended up publishing them. Agents have to be questioned — who knew what, and when. Everyone has an agenda, and you as the viewer would do well to keep your smartphone out of reach, because this is the kind of show that will punish you for taking your eyes off it even for a second.
If you do, you’re likely to miss a telling glance or an innocuous snatch of conversation that Rochant uses later down the line — maybe even a season or two later — to satisfyingly tie some complex thread together. The Bureau will not hold your hand, nor will it always bother to explain what you’re seeing, or why. You’re expected to keep up, which is a lot more compelling than it sounds.
However, ask Rochant whether it’s harder to write a series like this, which aims for verisimilitude in presenting the hall of mirrors-style complexity that spies live with (sans Hollywood-style explosions and special effects), and he demurs. “It’s not harder, it’s just different” than the alternative, which would be a more formulaic thriller for the masses.
“It’s just a discipline, you know?” he explains. “From my point of view, American shows are not always the type you describe. When I decided to become a showrunner, it’s because I really love American shows like The Sopranos, like The Wire, like Friday Night Lights. I could add Succession, the new HBO show that’s very well-written and acted. They’re just very good, well-written shows.”
There’s a great line in Cameron Crowe’s 2001 film Vanilla Sky, where one of the characters muses, “The little things — there’s nothing bigger.” That’s a great way to think about The Bureau. You’ll feel like you’re getting a peek into a world that ordinary people aren’t supposed to be able to see, and that will happen especially during moments like the time when Malotru shows an agent a list of dummy Twitter accounts to interact with if she ever needs to reach him. Or, the “three-question test” that Malotru uses to know whether an ally on the other end of the phone has been compromised. If the other person answers his third question with another question, he knows something is wrong.
The Bureau is about the secret men and women who both spy and facilitate the spying. It’s about the lies they tell to the world, to each other, and to themselves. There’s nothing philosophical here, no “greater good” claptrap or appeals to patriotism. There’s just the work, and the Darwinian imperatives to never drop your cover, to know that lives are at stake every time you overlook an errant fact in a case file – and, above all else, the compulsion to abide by the Internet era’s version of what used to be known during the Cold War as Moscow Rules: Assume that everywhere you go, whether at home or work, someone is always watching and listening.
“Spies can’t tell anything about their job to their family,” Rochant said. “They can’t say why they might be anxious or mad or upset. Or why they’re proud of what they do. They can’t say anything about their job. And it’s very real, when you think about it. When you come home at night, you can’t say anything about your job. It’s tough. Some of them [real-world DGSE agents] told me that they can tell their family, ‘Watch The Bureau. It’s almost like that.’ This is really our objective, to describe their real life.”