Starring Jean Reno (Leon, Mission Impossible) in the lead role JO is a series quite unlike anything else to have been released since the recent explosion of interest in European TV drama began. After more than thirty years working exclusively in feature films Reno has been tempted back to television with the promise of playing the lead in what is reported to be one of the most expensive shows to have ever been shot in France.
Devised by René Balcer (Law & Order) the series combines American approaches to storytelling with European production values. Charlotte Siegling (The Killing and The Bridge) is amongst the roster of directors. Made specifically for export with an eye on the all important North American market, JO‘s cast of regulars and guest artistes is filled with British, Canadian, Irish, and American actors all speaking with American accents whilst pretending to be French. The version made available in each non English language territory, including France, is dubbed with a fresh dialogue track so the presence of incongruous accents and required suspension of disbelief is not an issue For those who enjoy the experience of reading subtitles their absence presents something of a problem but the audience willing to spend several hours or weeks watching European drama is comparatively small. With a budget rumoured to be in the region of $2.5 million USD per episode JO has been constructed to go beyond the existing cult fanbase and is aimed squarely at a mainstream audience.
Against a backdrop of Paris’ most famous tourist friendly monuments JO applies tried and tested tropes, familiar to those who have seen Law & Order or N.C.I.S, and incorporates a European sensibility that may seem exotic to a mainstream audience viewing a French based drama for the first time. A Trojan horse, JO utilizes the traditional American police procedural generic template and blends in a layered and morally ambiguous cast of characters. Elements which may seem commonplace to long term fans of European TV drama are new and obscure for the wider gallery so a reliance upon recognizable components is necessary in order to persuade cautious viewers to join this series’ detective on his professional and personal emotional journeys.
Jean Reno plays Jo Saint-Clair, a complex character, full of contradictions. A detective assigned to the homicide division who has danced with the criminal underworld for so long he’s now tainted by a permanent stench of filth. This modern day Icarus has sailed close to the sun far too many times with disastrous consequences. Physically weakened by a heart attack brought upon by years of hard living he’s trapped within a personal hell from which escape seems impossible.
Standing on the edge of the abyss Jo is hell bent on throwing himself head first into a pit of eternal spiritual torment. No longer believing in the power of redemption Jo relies upon an unhealthy mix of heavy alcohol consumption and pill popping to silence the screams in his head. Nights are spent playing cards with low rent thugs and as each fresh day breaks, bringing with it painful moments of lucidity, he has even less reason to trust his faltering moral compass. Feared and respected by criminals and colleagues, Jo is a loner who knows when to bend and break the rules. At times deceptively laconic, this façade conceals a primal rage. Those who have witnessed Jo’s volcanic eruptions live with an ever present fear that one day he may explode and cross the line..
Years spent fraternising with the more dangerous elements of Parisienne society have attuned Jo’s understanding of lawlessness to the point where he can see patterns in things that other, less worldly-wise, officers would have dismissed without thought. . The darker aspects of his personality are tempered by his channelling a lifetime of personal tragedies and failings into overt demonstrations of empathy towards victims of crime.
A lost soul, the son of a sex worker he has no knowledge of his father’s identity. With a surname taken from the street in which he was born, Jo is suffering from a perpetual sense of self loathing compounded by a long standing existential crisis. The absence of a stable father figure has left him emotionally bereft and he’s spent his life filling the void with a succession of destructive surrogate replacements. Jo’s relationship with card shark and notorious gangster Charlie (Sean Pertwee) has lasted longer than his marriage and yet it is this long standing friendship which has the potential to destroy everything which Jo cherishes.
Jo Saint-Clair’s emotional odyssey and his potential for growth coupled with an inherent destructive instinct distinguishes this series from the American shows it’s trying to emulate. The death of his wife compounds his isolation and self hatred but also presents an opportunity for redemption. Attempting to reconcile with his daughter, Adèle (Heida Reed), after years of absence Jo decides to walk a new path in the hope he will become the father he should have been all along. Aided by a nun (Jill Hennessy), Jo fights a tortuous battle with demons he has harboured throughout his life and faces an imminent war with the forces of darkness who are terrified at the prospect of his being cleansed of their influence.
The crimes featured in JO are motivated by issues central to the contemporary French experience. Peeling back the city’s glamorous veneer JO places the less savoury aspects on show for the whole world to see. Glittering catwalks, governmental palaces, and refugee camps conceal a Paris which does not appear on any tourist destination map. Murders may motivated by greed, lust, or a desire for revenge but in JO each case has a distinctly Gallic tinge. Amongst the killings investigated in the course of this series’ run are the death of a researcher into French women deported to Auschwitz and the murder of a supermodel on the Eiffel Tower.
A glossy visually arresting series, JO has an number of familiar faces in its cast, including; Tom Austen (The Borgias), Geraldine Chaplin (Doctor Zhivago, Nashville) Adrian Dunbar (Hear My Song, Cracker), Orla Brady (Poirot), Sean Pertwee (Event Horizon) and Jill Hennessy (Crossing Jordan).
With a tightly controlled central performance from Jean Reno, JO is a series that takes us on a whistle-stop tour of Paris’ most sensational locations, and its most depraved, but never shifts its focus from the story of a man who will always be enslaved by anguish..
JO is available on DVD from Amazon: