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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

René Balcer Delivers With “Jo” Starring Jean Reno

Law & Order fans are very familiar with René Balcer. He’s had his hands in almost all of the shows in the Law & Order brand in one way or another – executive producer, developer, director, writer, stories, and probably more. In January of 2013, I wrote on my blog that René had a new crime/drama titled “Jo” starring Jean Reno. The eight-episode series, set in Paris, has already premiered internationally but will not be airing in the U.S. at this time. Still, I recently had the opportunity to screen all 8 episodes of the series and I was completely taken with it. I wanted to pass along my thoughts about this series should it become available in the U.S. at a later date or be re-aired in other countries.

The series centers on Jo Saint-Clair (Jean Reno), a weathered veteran Paris detective who is part of the Criminal Brigade, an elite team handling out of the ordinary murder cases. Jo knows and respects the law but he also knows his way around it. He has a drug dependency problem, and is struggling to reconnect with his daughter Adele. When things start to look promising on that front, Jo finds himself in a new minefield. Each episode features a case which is resolved by the end of the episode, but the story arc with Jo and his daughter plays out through all 8 episodes.

This may sound like the same old crime drama to you, especially if you’re like me, who’s seen more than a few crime dramas over the years. But “Jo” was different - and very satisfying - for a combination of reasons.

Jean Reno is simply perfect in this role. He has always been a commanding, intimidating presence to me; these traits worked well as Jo sometimes plays the bully to get what he wants.  Reno also has such intensity and skill of expression that he can deliver volumes without uttering a word. The problem with many U.S. network crime shows these days is they are heavy in dialog and light in actual acting. Jean Reno was able to get Jo’s inner feelings across in scenes with no dialog with just a look, or by changing posture.  A great supporting cast was also a plus. Law & Order fans would have been overjoyed to see Jill Hennessy in all 8 episodes – as a nun. Yes, a nun. And it worked well. Sam Waterston also appeared in one episode with a surprising performance. And I won’t spoil the biggest shocker of all in the final episode that made me scream with delight; it would thrill any self-respecting Law & Order Criminal Intent fan.

Crime dramas have spread on television like kudzu, and after a while, they seem to recycle the same stories over and over. It’s gotten to the point that I can spot the killer the minute they first appear on the screen. Not so with “Jo”; each story felt fresh and new, and like Jo, I felt I was unraveling the crime with him as the story progressed. Each episode was well written with interesting crime stories told in tandem with personal drama, making Jo a compelling character with complex layers. This pulled me in further with each ensuing episode.

There’s something to be said for selecting a great city with interesting locales, and then having the scenes staged and filmed to showcase them perfectly. My favorite on location scene was in episode 2, “Pigalle”, filmed high up on the Eiffel Tower. Not only did it feature great views, the scene felt so real it made me slightly unsettled. (I guess that’s my own fear of heights coming out.) A few other great locations were Notre Dame, the Catacombes, and Place Vendôme. It was obvious that great care was taken to make sure that each scene was a visual treat;  this was clearly quality work.

While this series was filmed in and around Paris and Jean Reno - with a strong French accent - was lead, all the supporting characters were English speaking, most with “American” accents. This was a little disorienting at first. Once I became involved in the stories, it became a non-issue for me. As the series was tailored for international audience, I can understand why they did this.

Jo’s personal drama was well woven into each episode and it felt like his progress with his daughter was just as important as him solving the case. His connections with those on the wrong side of the law create some obstacles requiring him to get creative in order to get the outcome he wanted, unfortunately with some unintended consequences. I found myself invested in his efforts to make things right with his daughter and felt the stories centering on his personal issues greatly enhanced each episode. This would be a great series to binge-watch. As each episode reveals more about Jo Saint-Clair, it’s easy to want more.

One thing you can count on: René Balcer’s ability to deliver a show that tells a great story and that entertains, and “Jo” certainly does so. If you ever get the chance to watch this series, take it. It will be 8 hours well spent.

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