Immigrant children being separated from their parents. Smugglers leaving their victims for dead before they reach the border. People who are seeking asylum finding horrors on their journeys worse than the ones they fled. Public officials making empty pronouncements and bad policies.
That might sound like a lineup of stories from the Texas border on one of the cable news channels tonight. But those are instead some of themes of the darkly compelling British-French crime drama “The Tunnel,” which returns for its third and final season at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on PBS.
Given the extreme polarization and highly emotional level of debate about U.S. immigration policy on cable news night and day this summer, the last thing anyone might think they want to see is a prime-time drama about many of those same matters in Europe. No thanks, I’ll take a pass on a deep dive into Brexit. The “build the wall” debate here is upsetting and confusing enough.
But here’s one of the pleasant surprises I discovered binge watching the first two seasons of “The Tunnel” this summer: The crime drama delivered a kind of step-back clarity and triggered larger, philosophical thinking on borders, immigration, human rights and national security.
It wasn’t that the drama was so cerebral. It had plenty of emotion. There are moments involving people doing things to other people that are so physically and viscerally intense that you will want to look away.
There’s a moment in Season 2, for instance, when a doctor who is involved in bio-terrorism injects one of the two leading characters in the series with a deadly toxin, and the injection is done into one of her eyes.
(Yeah, I went, “Yeow!” too, and walked away from the screen thinking I really didn’t need to see that just before going to bed.)
But “The Tunnel” not only kept me totally locked in as a drama, it left me feeling more enlightened as to how the ideological battles over U.S. borders fit into a global mosaic of immigration, multiculturalism, terrorism, technology, nationalism and tribalism. You watch this series, and you can’t help but question whether you can solve what’s happening on our southern border by simply building a wall.
Season 1 opened with police finding a body at the halfway point of the Channel Tunnel between France and the UK. The young, highly-focused French detective on site, Captain Elise Wasserman (Clémence Poésy), claims the case because the head of the body is that of a French political figure, and it’s on the French side of the tunnel.
That’s just fine with the aging, laid-back British detective, DCI Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane), who is perfectly happy to get home to his family and not be bothered with a lot of complicated paperwork.
But when the technicians start to lift the body for removal, it falls into two parts. The torso has been severed at the waist and disemboweled. Police will later learn the bottom half of the cadaver was not that of the French politician, but rather that of a British sex worker who had gone missing.
So much for DCI Roebuck ducking this case. He and Captain Wasserman are to work it together navigating linguisitic, cultural and gender differences in the bilingual drama.
I have not enjoyed a pair of detectives in a TV drama this much since Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in Season 1 of HBO’s “True Detective” or, going way back, Andre Braugher and Kyle Secor on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” from Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana.
The dialogue isn’t as rich here as it was in either of those, because Roebuck is laconic and Wasserman speaks even less than he. It goes beyond differences in languages. Some UK reviewers have described her as behaving in ways that are consistent with Asperger Syndrome.
I don’t have the expertise to render an opinion on that. The bottom line for me as a viewer is that the script deftly presents her in a way that instantly makes me respect her and want to know more about her.
For all of his seen-it-all demeanor, Roebuck is impressed with her as a cop and intrigued by her as a person. Maybe he’s a little amused, too, at times by some of her actions — but not in a patronizing way. She’s clearly the more conscientious detective.
Speaking of “Homicide,” which was set and filmed in Baltimore, the gray, industrial, harbor look of the “The Tunnel” made me feel right at home. Gritty, not pretty, is definitely the aesthetic here.
Season 3 opens with Wasserman and Roebuck reunited to investigate the remains of a smuggler’s boat that had immigrant children aboard when it was set on fire and left in the channel to burn.
This is a dark series, no doubt about it. But beyond the sheer entertainment of the cop drama and mystery, the rewards run intellectually deep.
The torso that opened Season 1 — half-British, half French and totally more complicated than it appeared to be — made me think about how socially constructed even our notions of national identity are. Later, thinking back to the discussion the detectives had about jurisdiction of the cadaver, I was struck by artificiality of borders and how they have as much or more to do with political negotiation than geography — even though we tend to think of them as hard and fixed.
It is important to note that the opening sequence with the body was borrowed directly from the Swedish-Danish production, “The Bridge,” which debuted in 2011. That was the archetype, and it was brilliant. “The Tunnel” is the adaptation straight through to the outlines of the two lead characters.
But there are adaptations and there are adaptations.
FX did a version of “The Bridge” in 2013, using the same title but setting the discovery of a murdered body on the U.S.-Mexican border between Juarez and El Paso. It was a serious drama that lasted two seasons. But it lost me after a few episodes.
What I love about “The Tunnel” is the way it demands that the viewer watch through constantly shifting cultural prisms and the way it relishes cultural, ethnic and gender differences big and small.
At one point in Season 2, Roebuck asks Wasserman what the title of the children’s book “Winnie-the-Pooh” is in French. Is it just “Winnie-the-Pooh,” he asks.
No, it’s literally “Winnie-the-Bear,” she says, breaking it down.
At another point, she’s puzzled by the English expression, “Keep your hair on.” Once he explains it as an admonition to calm down, she can’t get enough of it and uses it as at a very inopportune time later on.
On a more serious level, Roebuck’s wife is constantly questioning and critiquing him from a feminist perspective, and he’s constantly falling short. Then, just when you think that’s the dominant point of view when it comes to gender in the series, she turns out to be all wrong on a very serious matter in her marriage.
No one point of view is privileged. It’s cultural bricolage — borrow, adapt, learn from each other and try to grow.
That’s a globalist ideology for sure, and probably not for you if building President Donald Trump’s wall seems like a good idea.
But keep your hair on before you go to social media and start slamming me as globalist enemy of the people.
One of the great things about good TV drama is the way it allows us to symbolically explore other points of views, life choices and identities as we engage with characters on the screen.
Spend some time “The Tunnel,” and I guarantee, if nothing else, immigration and border security won’t seem like such a cut and dried, one-dimensional issue.
You might even learn how to say “Winnie-the-Pooh” in French.