Why I watch ‘la télé’

TV controlMy name is Mel and I am a TV addict. There, I’ve said it. You do not want to get between me and my favorite programs: sitcoms, dramas, the odd soap. TV characters are not just my favorite form of entertainment, they are my close personal friends.

When I first moved to France, I felt alone. The televised offering on the basic French channels was frankly pathetic. There was almost nothing that wasn’t dubbed, and watching reruns of American cop shows when the words don’t match the lips was beyond me. Unless something is offered in the original language (even if that language is not English or French), I refuse to watch it. I don’t mind reading subtitles but I want to hear the real voices.

So we got cable and I was saved. We had the BBC! We even had a few channels with American programs in V.O. (‘Version Originale’ or original language version with subtitles). My life changed as I went to my happy place most evenings, once again in the company of friendly faces.

Then we moved to the country and there was no cable. Desolation set in. Until I discovered…wait for it: Sky TV! We weren’t technically allowed access in France but there were ways around it (if you work for Sky, stop reading now). We had a satellite dish installed on our roof and the Sky+ Box became my new BFF.

Suddenly there was a full complement of British TV channels, including movies, all in English! I raved about how wonderful it was for the kids’ English, how fabulous for them to have access to high-quality programming. You could even add subtitles in English to aid comprehension! Well worth the expense. Who was I kidding? It was My Box, no one else’s.

I still watch my box nightly and enjoy a fabulous lineup of original British and American television, mostly recorded in advance, enabling me to zap through the commercials. But that’s entertainment; for news and information I watch French TV.

There are many reasons to watch French television. Sitcom is not one of them. The French do certain kinds of TV really well, especially live shows. Investigative news and information (Envoyé Spécial, 13h15 le samedi/dimanche). Comedy shorts like ‘Un gars et une fille’, ‘Caméra Café’). I’ve never been a fan of the longer dramas and comedies – the scripting is wooden, more like televised theatre than natural speech, and the dialogue may be clever but is just not funny. Most French people watch films on TV and consider series television to be crap. When I see what’s on offer, I can only agree.

Television is a wonderful tool for learning a language. Watching TV in French did wonders for my comprehension. Not just of the language, although that improved immensely. It also taught me a lot about les Français, what is important to them, how they interact – all the social cues and subtext that make up French culture.

The commercials were also a reason to watch. Back in the day when advertisers still spent big budgets on TV, some of best spots were made in France. The subtlety of the humor was brilliant – but why couldn’t they translate that into decent comedy series?

The nightly news, ‘le 20 heures’, taught me to decode the world according to the French. It is not the same as the world portrayed in North America: international news plays a bigger role, although French politics are centre stage. How the French see the rest of the world, especially les américains, has been key to understanding so many things in this country.

Then I discovered the televised format the French do best: live talk shows. These programs are featured in the access-to-prime time slot leading up to the dinner hour. They usually feature a round table of guests and ‘chroniquers’ or TV hosts/editorialists. So while I get dinner ready and enjoy a glass of something, I get a very French view on politics, current affairs, music, film and entertainment. All in good fun.

For years we faithfully watched ‘Le Grand Journal’ on Canal Plus (a pay channel with free access at certain times.) It features the highly entertaining Les Guignols along with an all-star lineup of international guests promoting books, films, albums. Having worked in television, I can say that the technical production of a nightly program like this is amazing. Over the years I witnessed some of the funniest moments ever captured on live television in France, especially back in the days with Philippe Gildas as host and Antoine de Caunes as funny man. But the hosts changed and I never recovered my love of the show after Michel Denizot left to edit the French version of Vanity Fair.

Now my favorite talk show is C’est à Vous. The premise is a dinner party. The guests arrive, usually bearing a hostess gift like flowers or some interesting trinket, and sit around the table while a chef prepares a meal in the open kitchen. The program continues as dinner is served, replete with wine and dessert. It is all very civilized but with lots of humor and sans prétension.

Plateau 'C'est à vous'I love this show. It is so very French to entertain à table. Socially, people relax and the conversational exchanges are more natural. The program usually ends on a live performance by an up-and-coming artist on stage but much more intimate than the performances on the Grand Journal.

C'est à vous

Hostess with the mostest: Anne-Sopie Lapix on France 5

The program host, Anne-Sophie Lapix, is the essence of the modern French woman:  elegant, natural, not overly made up. Authentic and smart. I cannot praise her enough as she manages to hold it together with warmth and intelligence no matter how stroppy certain guests get or even in a recent medical emergency when one of the co-hosts, Patrick Cohen, fainted on set. So catch it if you can, although I’m not sure it’s accessible outside France.

Do you watch TV? C’mon, you can admit it – we’re all friends here.

The world according to Les Guignols

Les Guignols de l'infoA great source of entertainment and education for non-natives in France is Les Guignols de l’info. These satirical French puppets have been parodying politics and ‘les people’, as the French call the famous, as long as I can remember. They’re part of the free viewing offer on French pay TV Canal Plus.

Every night at 20:00 (that’s 8 pm for you non-Europeans), the puppet known to all as PPD (pron: ‘pay-pay-day’, an abbreviation of the name Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, who used to be the real-life anchorman on the TF1 evening news), welcomes viewers with the line:

“Nous sommes en 2014, vous regardez l’ancêtre d’internet, bonsoir.”
(It’s 2014, you’re watching the ancestor of the internet, good evening).

He used to introduce the show with this line, forever engraved in the French pysche: “Vous regardez trop la télévision” (You watch too much TV). Mais il faut changer avec son temps, n’est-ce pas? Times change.

Ménage à troisNothing and no one is safe from the Guignols. Even the host of the Grand Journal, the evening news and entertainment show in which the puppets make their nightly appearance, has been the target of their biting commentary.

And every French president, from Chirac to Hollande, has been caricatured, poked fun at, openly criticized and even ridiculed. International figures like the Pope, the Queen, Osama Bin Laden have all made regular appearances. Often the more frightening their real-life personas, the most endearing are their puppets.

M. Sylvestre and PopeEvery American is portrayed as Sylvester Stallone. Sometimes there are multiple Stallones onscreen, explaining how they run the world to the French or ‘les fromages qui puent’ (stinky cheeses).

The Guignols have been going to town of late with two modern greats, both in the category I like to call ‘Oh how the mighty have fallen’. I’m talking about Dominique Strauss-Kahn (aka DSK) and Gérard Depardieu (affectionately known as Gégé).

Gégé, then and now...Unless you’ve been living under a rock (maybe the one that he himself crawled out from), you’ve heard about DSK’s fall from grace (if grace can be a state for one so notoriously unable to keep it in his pants). Hint: it involved a chamber maid in a New York hotel, oh-so coincidentally on the eve of a presidential run. Now his story has been immortalized in a feature film called ‘Welcome to New York.’ Depardieu plays DSK in the film which premièred at the Cannes Festival, but out of competition, and is available via video on demand. Why? Because no one in this country would touch it with a ten-foot pole. Anne Sinclair, DSK’s ex, heads the French edition of the HuffPost and is a pillar of the media elite in this country. By the way, her character is played by Jacqueline Bisset.

DSK, of course, is suing the film’s producers for defamation of character. Which is funny when you consider what the Guignols get away with.

DSK chez les GuignolsDSK’s puppet makes regular appearances on the show, always in an leopard-print peignoir and saying ‘Excuse my attire, I just got out of the shower.’ He is known to speak affectionately to his member, which he calls Francis.

While it’s already had millions of downloads, seems the flick is a bit of a turkey. ‘Un navet’ (a turnip) as they say in the lingo. Read the review here.

We don’t always agree, the Guignols and me. Their portrayal of Barack Obama as a stereotypical French idea of un Black (urban accent and all) offends me.

But they’ve enabled me to take my French to a much deeper level of understanding. Not just the language (although they’ve definitely expanded my vocabulary), but of popular culture, of what the French find funny. And not.

So, tune in if you can and discover the world according to the Guignols. I’m not sure the copyright laws will allow viewers from abroad to screen the episodes, but here’s the link anyway if you want to follow the shows: http://www.canalplus.fr/c-divertissement/pid1784-c-les-guignols.html