France, we have come to understand, is a country fraught with contradictions. Nothing epitomizes that more than French television. Curling up in front of the TV for an evening’s entertainment can be both informative about French culture, and utterly baffling. It is, in the end, quintessentially French.
Sometimes, (quite often, actually) we get the feeling that the French do things just to be different from anyone else, whether or not it makes sense. Or kills somebody, like priority à droit. Sit down for TV one evening. You immediately discover that French TV shows don’t start at the top or bottom of the hour‒they start whenever they want. Ten minutes to the hour seems to be a fan favorite.
French TV shows don’t run for 30 or 60 minutes. They run as long as they want, because, like so many other things in France, there is just the right amount of time needed for this program and it runs as long as necessary. The Correct Amount of Time.
We have basic cable here, which gives something like 25 active channels. There are a few national channels, France 1 or France 2, etc. Then there are regional channels that are programmed for the area where you live, which for us is the Sarthe, along with some other nearby regions. To be honest, we tend to skim through the channels and when we watch TV at all it is during the evening, so I’m not entirely clear about programming differences among them, but evening programming on many channels seems to be a lot of panel discussions and talking heads over news footage. The regional channels are where contradictions flourish.
The French as a people are enormously, unabashedly proud of their culture and their history, far more than Americans are of theirs. It is part of French DNA. They have a pride in being “French.” They have a history that goes back two millennia. They remember and celebrate it, and actively work to teach new generations the significance of that history. They work to maintain “Frenchness” under assault from the onslaught of Americanisms and the English language. Virtually every night you find at least one channel, often several, showing programs devoted to French history‒documentaries about the middle ages, one of the World Wars, archaeologists unearthing a new find. And travelogs, wonderful travelogs promoting the enormous diversity of the regions of France and giving us great fodder for future road trips.
But immediately after one of those documentaries, right in the middle of “prime time,” you get a French-language dubbed, decades old episode of…wait for it, wait for it… “Columbo”! Or “Pawn Stars.” Or “Counting Cars.” Or “NCIS.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Our particular favorite is a TV show that is impenetrable but, like a train wreck, impossible to stop watching, called “Fort Boyard.” The show has been on since 1990, and variants of it are done in an astonishing number of countries around the world, all similar in theme to the original French version filmed in an abandoned fortress standing off the Charentaise coast.
It is almost impossible to explain this show. The short version is, two teams compete in a series of challenges to win money for a charity or some worthy cause. The things they must do are so dangerous, and often so politically incorrect by contemporary American standards, one would expect it to be shut down in a nonce by insurance regulations or a woke mob. Dwarfs (ok, little people(?), but now including women), dressed up in ridiculous costumes shepherd contestants through a series of challenges to obtain keys that will unlock the vault at the end of the show, where contestants have a small amount of time to rake in “gold” coins and escape through a gate before it drops and tigers are released into the room. Really.
But wait, there’s more: The Challenges! Catapulting a contestant off the top of the fort into the ocean, trying to hit a tiny target. Riding a bicycle on a wire stretched across the gaping courtyard of the fort, 50 feet or more below. Crawling through a room full of spiders, roaches, scorpians, and snakes, in the dark. And my personal favorite, a completely mad and hilariously funny “chef” forcing contestants to eat an entire plate full of a nauseating melange of “ingredients” in which the object is to keep it down and avoid blowing lunch. Worms, natto, durian, blood, feathers. Maybe some raw bass guts. Mixed together in a “bass-o-matic.” Great stuff! I could go on. There are wizards, and scantily clad ladies. Games of skill with fantasy Olympians and pre-adolescent martial arts champions. The details and wackiness seem to change each season. Everyone in France apparently knows “Fort Boyard.”
You sit there and watch this thing, and my goodness, it seems like its been going on for a while, and you look at the clock and realize this program has been on for two and a half hours, and they’re not close to the end! And there hasn’t been a commercial break.
That’s when you discover yet another convention of French television, something inconceivable to the American TV Executive: There are no commercial breaks in French television. All commercials run in a single block before and after the programs. The commercial block might be ten or twelve minutes long, but get this‒every commercial block is prefaced with a graphic that says “Promotion.”
They actually give you a warning that you are about to be hit with a block of commercials. It is sort of a “Warning Will Robinson! Danger! Danger! Commercials Ahead!”
Not that French TV commercials are all that bad. They’re a fascinating contrast to what we see in the US, and an interesting glimpse of French culture. There seem to be two kinds of voice-over, no matter what you are watching. One is a woman (it sounds like the very same woman all the time), who breathlessly whispers to you about the product she’s hawking, be it frozen pizza or cleaning products. The other is a slightly manic male voice, trying to cram 60 seconds worth of copy into a 30-second spot, sounding like Crazy Eddie. We often look at each other and say, “I have no idea what that was about.”
The other thing you cannot help noticing is how much commercial copy and advertising verbiage, spoken or on-screen text, is English. You will hear a French voice rattling off in French, and then seamlessly work in “Fast!” “Quick!” “Amazing!” (sometimes an entire phrase in English) before returning to French. It’s startling, and I’ve often thought “When would you ever hear a commercial in the US where the announcer momentarily slipped into French then returned to English?”
There are fascinating contradictions in French TV, contradictions that mirror the contradictions in everyday life here in that tug of war between Frenchness and the invasive quality of the English language and American culture. But, predictably, there remain some constants, some immutable laws of nature that prevail, whether in the US, or here in France.
Like, Beloved Wife can’t work the remote here, either.