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A bath for your brain: why French drama Torn is perfect pandemic TV

It took me a while to warm to Walter Presents/All 4’s French drama Torn. I first saw it in a cinema a couple of years ago, when I was on the jury for the French television festival Series Mania.

Back then, its charms were not immediately apparent. It was – is – about a woman cheating on her husband with a chef in Provence; it felt as if the story was secondary to all the nice things on display. The cast members were all attractive and the characters lived in houses so beautiful that it made me angry. “That wasn’t a drama,” sniffed one of the other jurors as we filed out of the screening. “That was a tourism advert.”

But, God, things have changed since then. When I noticed about a week ago that Torn had materialised on Channel 4’s streaming platform, I decided it was time for a reappraisal. I don’t know if I have changed in the past couple of years, or if the entire world has changed around me (which, of course, it has), but I am now obsessed with Torn. Somehow, it has blossomed into perfect lockdown telly. Allow me to lay out why Torn will be your new favourite show.

First, obviously, there is lockdown to contend with. All the things that put me off are now things I am desperate to experience again. Watching a series set against a Provençal paradise – all big stone buildings and vivid greens, air so warm that you can almost smell it – is the closest that most of us will get to a foreign holiday for the foreseeable future. The fact that the cast – led by Julie Gayet and Bruno Debrandt (Brémont in Spiral) – is preposterously attractive helps, too. This is not a show that requires close scrutiny. It is a bath for your brain and, good lord, your brain needs a bath.

Bruno Debrandt in Torn
Who did it? Tough one to call … Florent (Bruno Debrandt) in Torn. Photograph: François Lefebvre

Second, many of us have just watched a much worse version of Torn in The Undoing. As with The Undoing, everyone on Torn is rich and glossy. As with The Undoing, a woman dies early on. As with The Undoing, the narrative propulsion comes from trying to work out whether or not the primary suspect did it.

In The Undoing, though, there was only ever one person who could have done it; each episode between the first and the finale was spent trying to distract you from the inevitable. In Torn, the culprit could be anyone. Its original title – Soupçons, which apparently translates as “Suspicions” – is perfect, because everyone is shifty as hell. Provence, it transpires, is riddled with potential murderers. All the players, from the victim’s husband to a former lover, drip with feasible motives. The local police chief looks like a bad’un as well, not least because of whom he is married to. Even the woman herself is not out of the running. Basically, if you hurled a rock at the south of France, it would hit someone who wanted her dead.

If you thought the final episode of The Undoing stretched the boundaries of credibility, you need to watch Torn. It is basically a gripping five-part drama with someone’s most ostentatiously absurd cheese dream stapled on to the end of it. The show is incredible when it comes to “What the hell?” twists, batting the ball into someone else’s court just when everything looks sewn up, but the finale blasts the whole thing into space. There are ways to blow up a show. Hugh Grant’s helicopter chase in The Undoing is a five out of ten. Torn’s denouement is a trillion out of ten. If you really want to stupefy people, this is how to do it.

Finally, it is French. I know it is stupid to judge a television programme by its country of origin – by that rationale, The Goop Lab is as good as Breaking Bad because it is also American – but, look, the end of Call My Agent! has left a hole. I want to watch another show where stylish people go about their day in a language I barely understand – and you have no right to deny me that.

Torn is nothing like Call My Agent!, though. It is not as funny or intelligent and there are fewer punishingly overt moments of product placement (at no point does anyone mourn the loss of the dead lady by crying over a box of Mikado), but it is still French. Sometimes, that is enough. If you need a more tangible connection, Gayet appeared in two episodes of Call My Agent! as herself. That is something, right?

There are only six episodes of Torn. A second series is unlikely, perhaps in part because I didn’t heap praise on it two years ago. But, still, what exists of it is brilliant. I just didn’t realise it until now.

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