If police dramas have taught me one thing, it’s that the past never stays buried. Witnesses, a new French detective drama originally shown in the UK on Channel 4, takes that idea all too literally, opening on the discovery of three dug-up bodies arranged to look like a perfect family in a show home. It’s a grim premise for sure, but one that marks Witnesses out from the slew of other equally dark police procedurals – for once, it’s not about a murder. At least, not at first.
Once the macabre discovery has been made, detective Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) is called in to investigate, soon suspecting a link between the perpetrator and the former chief of police, Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte). But this is no great deduction; with a dead wife and a mysterious stay in a recovery centre, the man practically screams suspicious. Sandra too is a familiar character – a bright, young cop with a hint of OCD and just enough bluntness to ensure she rubs her senior officers the wrong way. She’s also faced with the dilemma of having to choose between her family and her job, a decision that seems to plague female police officers on television. So far, so familiar.If the lead characters then are nothing you haven’t seen before, what makes Witnesses so striking is that the first half of the series revolves around a case involving victims who were already dead. There is something inherently unsettling about the exhumation of bodies and this is a feeling which is amplified throughout the series at every opportunity possible. The story takes place in Le Tréport, a small coastal town that, thanks to this series, is unlikely to receive a boom in tourism. Le Tréport is unrelentingly grey, towered over by immense cliffs and with the world’s most sinister funicular. It’s not a place you would ever want to visit, never mind on holiday, but it makes the perfect setting for this sinister investigation.
There’s a lot of fairytale imagery being invoked here, not least in the wonderfully strange opening titles, and the series seems to be playing with the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. It’s an interesting element to add, but one that fits perfectly, especially when the story deals so centrally with the question of what constitutes a perfect family and sees homes invaded by unwelcome strangers – ideas right at the heart of fairytales.The strong attention to theme and mood elevates the show beyond your basic whodunnit. What lets it down however, is the who in whodunnit, as the latter half of the series loses focus, veering off into a case involving a serial killer from Maisonneuve’s past which ultimately has nothing much to do with the bodies in the show home. It’s almost like Witnesses lost its nerve halfway through, feeling the need to include a twisted psychopath just to add some tension.
You can get by without a psychopath though – in fact it’s so much scarier when your antagonist has an actual motive; it makes them more real. There’s a chase sequence in the final episode which is very tense, Sandra desperately dragging an injured suspect through an industrial estate as they’re chased by a man with a gun. They make achingly slow progress and their efforts are made all the more palpable by the fact that Sandra is down to her socks, having discarded her high heels in favour of speed. It’s a defining moment for the character, and one you’ll be hard pressed not to cheer at.
If the grim opening doesn’t put you off then there is much to like in Witnesses. It’s full of character and dripping with symbolism – even Maisonneuve’s name, French for new house, ties in to the series’ focus on characters trying to put the past behind them. Seasoned fans of police procedurals will find something to enjoy too, with enough twists and turns to keep even them on their toes.