WHEN a murdered boy and serial killer came back to life in French supernatural series The Returned, hundreds of thousands of viewers in Britain tuned into what became a surprise hit.
Not content with a prime time slot on Britain's Channel 4, the series has been sold to nearly 40 other nations, one of several acclaimed French TV exports that mark a revival for a country famed for its cinema but not its television.
"An issue has been that they (French series) tended to be a bit slow generally, which can be a challenge," said John Peek, head of the London-based television consultancy TAPE.
"But... what's coming through now is that they can also be stylish and have a visual flair, which is something that makes them more attractive than they have been in the past."
The French are traditionally wary of television as a provider of quality content, and the recent revival has been influenced as much by the popularity of US shows as by risk-taking pay television channel Canal+, which often is compared to HBO – the network behind The Wire, Six Feet Under, True Blood and Game of Thrones.
The Returned, which aired in Britain from June, echoes the current popular zombie theme, featuring former residents of a remote Alpine town who come back to life and wreak emotional havoc among the living, to the sound of a sombre soundtrack by Scottish band Mogwai.
It attracted an average of 1.8 million viewers per subtitled episode on Channel 4, not much less than the first season of Homeland, which drew in around 2.2 million per show on the same channel.
The series is now making its grand entrance onto the US market from October 31 on the Sundance Channel.
Maison Close, a period drama set in a 19th century Parisian brothel that features racy, sometimes violent sex scenes, is another success that has reportedly inspired HBO to develop a remake.
But other more down-to-earth series have also scored widely. Spiral, a gritty account of France's justice system through the eyes of an ambitious prosecutor, a hard-as-nails police officer and a ruthless lawyer, has proved popular on the BBC and Netflix.
And crime thriller Braquo, which some have called France's answer to The Wire, won an International Emmy Award last year.
According to a survey co-produced by TV France International (TVFI), an association of programme exporters, sales of French series and films abroad rose 14.3% last year.
"For a long time, French series were organised around a single, monolithic hero... But for some 15 years, US series have highlighted either heroes with flaws, problems, or groups of heroes," said Francois Jost, a French communications professor.
The lack of characters viewers could "get attached to" kept French TV from scoring internationally until now, he said.
Most of the acclaimed, new French series have been produced by Canal+, which has decided to invest money and effort as the tastes of its customers have evolved.
And while terrestrial television has started to jump on the bandwagon with series such as the acclaimed World War II drama Un Village Français, it still remains risk-averse.
Jost said traditional series that run on terrestrial television, such as police drama Julie Lescaut which has aired for almost 22 years, were made to appeal to wide audiences and not make waves.
Some of these became popular abroad, the 1990s-2000s Sous le Soleil soap opera sold in more than 130 countries, but they proved of little attraction to the English-language market.
"Projects made by (terrestrial) channels such as TF1 or France 2 can be interesting in the beginning and then they are ground down and evened-out with a bland end-result, while pay channels can take more risks," Jost said.
Pierre Serisier, who writes a blog on TV series for the Le Monde newspaper website, said France "suffers from its TV history".
He said that from the end of World War II to the privatisation and launch of channels in the 1980s, French television had a "real educational vocation."
But "from then, we got rubbish TV, television that immediately lost its soul," he said, pointing to cheap shows that inundated channels because they brought in viewers and advertising revenue.
"We are a country that is wary of television and thinks cinema and literature are worthy, but TV is not good."
All agree, however, that the industry is changing.
"We've been saying for two to three years that we feel there is a renewal... in fictional programming. We're getting there," said Mathieu Bejot, head of TVFI.
Text and photo: © Afp/Relaxnews