TV: The Bureau (Season 1)

April 20, 2020

There’s nothing top secret about my mission to watch every great spy show ever made. I’ve logged many, many hours in the attempt. So I’d like to think it comes with a fair amount of authority when I say this: the first season of The Bureau may well be the single best season of spy TV I’ve ever seen. This classy, tortuously complex slow-burn is impressively acted and precisely executed, singing with authenticity and rich with intrigue and drama.

The dense, suspenseful saga takes place at the DGSE, France’s primary external security service, centering on “the bureau of legends,” a department tasked with training and deploying operatives for clandestine deep-cover assignments in foreign nations. Exceptional field agent Guillaume Debailly (Matthieu Kassovitz) has just returned from a long stint in Syria, his mission to gather intelligence and recruit agents. Now he’s reacclimating to normal life in Paris — still working for the DGSE, but in an office capacity. Among his duties is helping to train a promising young recruit named Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau) for an upcoming assignment to Iran. He also quickly becomes an important resource on a damage-mitigation task force when a French asset in Algeria goes missing. But these nerve-wracking responsibilities are the least of his problems. While in Syria, Guillaume met and fell in love with a woman named Nadia El Monsour (Zineb Triki). When Nadia turns up in Paris by chance, it rekindles their romance — but also forces Guillaume to resurrect his Syria cover, propelling him into a precarious double life. He’s confident he can juggle his identities and maintain control of the situation, but as events unfold, everything slips out of his grasp, jeopardizing both his personal life and his career.

The last twenty years have been extremely kind to fans of spy TV, providing scads of solid content along the “Fleming-LeCarre spectrum,” that range encompassing the heightened-reality, action-adventure wish fulfillment of James Bond on one side and the subtle, cerebral puzzle-solving of George Smiley on the other. Both have their worthy examples, but for me, the latter is typically the more absorbing — and The Bureau may be its flawless epitome. Like many great spy shows, it’s a twisty, high-stakes workplace drama, populated by classic intelligence-world archetypes engaged in scheming office politics. Indeed, if you’ve been missing the dark CTU bullpens of 24, the “grid” of MI-5, or the dingy corridors of The Sandbaggers, you’ll get that tense, gripping atmosphere from The Bureau in spades. But The Bureau is a cut above, much more convincingly realized than any of those shows. Derived from actual events, it oozes verisimilitude, both in the inchoate, complex nature of its operations and the precise depiction of its nitty-gritty tradecraft. The visual story-telling is exceptional, especially when showing its agents working in the field — Guillaume’s preternatural skill for countersurveillance, for example, is masterfully shot, letting the action speak for itself. That said, there’s also smart structure to the writing, and eloquence in the dialogue. Guillaume’s sporadic narration lends an occasional French New Wave vibe to the murky proceedings, which suits the show’s tight focus on the psychology of spying — which is emphasized in a subplot involving a DGSE behavioral psychologist, Dr Laurène Balmes (Léa Drucker), who supports the department by analyzing its staff and agents alike. Oh, I’m certain the show takes liberties to heighten the dramatic effect, but The Bureau does an exceptional job selling its realism.

The performances are terrific, especially from Kasovitz as a the prototypical thinking-man’s superspy, and Giraudeau as the atypical, unlikely young recruit. Guillaume’s clandestine juggling act definitely delivers a robust, complicated A story, but Marina’s painstaking journey from trainee to active agent is a just-as-compelling complement, her arduous operational journey beginning just as Guillaume’s comes to a fraught end. These two primary characters are ably abetted by Drucker, Triki, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Florence Loiret Caille, Jonathan Zaccaï, and a rich roster of supporting characters.

Needless to say, The Bureau’s first season is must-see television for fans of the genre, a highly satisfying and utterly gripping spy tale. I’m thrilled that there are three other seasons already out to catch up on.