4 out of 5
Created by: Ed McCardie and Corinne Marrinan
This was a definite surprise, both from the outset – I’d made some ridiculous, no-reason-for-it guesses about the show’s content – and once it started to expand on its concept.
I’ll lay it out for you: due to some set of circumstances I’m either not remembering or cannot explain, I had associated this show with AMC’s ‘Feed the Beast,’ which was an interesting but not good series that rightfully died after a season of good ideas and actors led astray by crappy TV tropes. Along with these mysterious circumstances, I was convinced that Spotless was the inspiration for ‘Beast,’ and was supposed to be better / more original in some fashion, and so I added it to my Netflix queue. The completely generic artwork used for it didn’t set me off the above association.
So there was surprise number one, in playing the first episode and realizing that, yeah, there’s no relation: Spotless concerns crime scene cleaner Jean (Marc-André Grondin)- he runs a business mopping up the dead once the police have done their forensics – and his noir-ish descent into working for the mob when he finds himself having to “clean” his way out of an unfortunate situation that his brother, Martin (Denis Ménochet), foists upon him. Jean’s a family man – a wife (Miranda Raison), two kids – and seemingly quite intelligent; Martin is the wild card in any given situation, and is played off as something of a goof, giving us an odd couple pairing. This dynamic, plus the “normal guy doing bad things” scenario thus puts us in mind of another show: Breaking Bad. And some of those comparisons will line up. But that’s where Spotless has another surprise.
Jean is a good man, but he’s not a milquetoast, and he’s not a wholesome husband. The series is upfront about him having an affair, and he’s already lightly dirtied his hands by paying off the cops to get favored service for crime scenes. Furthermore, he’s not a calculating genius, nor is Martin an idiot: they both make bad decisions, but they’re incredibly logical ones. And very often, Martin’s take on things prove that he has good instincts, although his impulses betray those. Both characters are very believably human, then, brought to life by actors Grondin and Ménochet. Paralleling this is that the “bad decisions” aren’t necessarily of the criminal variety – Jean is constantly trying to stay clean of this mess, and is rather forthright and honest about it. (At least with the mob…) Martin is a bit more dodgy, but he follows a similar pursuit: the brother aren’t greedy; they recognize working with the types they do won’t end well. Especially when that “type” is Nelson Clay (Brendan Coyle) a gangster whom we’re shown time and again is not only serious when he makes a threat, but also has more bases covered than one would ever assume.
Spotless walks steadily on its tightrope line that leads deeper into shenanigans while remaining clear on its morals. Noir often plays with the latter, with someone making a “greater good” type decision, but our leads never lose their humanity here, which, I’d say, is a much harder variant of noir to write.
There’s another interesting component to the show, that being the effect of Jean’s behavior and lifestyle on his unaware family, that, when it’s focused on, is excellent, but fades in and out a bit too easily over the course of the series. This also ends up applying to the flow of time, which sort of bounces between terse “we have to take care of this now” conversations and then lighter barroom banter, without it being clear how much time has passed, if it’s the same day, etc. A lot of the subplots come into clearer focus during the show’s latter half, which form a very binge-worthy stream of tense scenarios, but because that juggling isn’t always as well handled throughout, there’s the question of whether or not a more streamlined approach would have made for a tighter series overall.
Nonetheless, this was a time I was very glad to be wrong, and whenever you can be surprised by a show or movie showing more intelligence and nuance than you’d expect, I’d say that’s a good thing.