‘Spotless’ Review: Esquire Original Is ‘Breaking Bad’ Meets ‘Wallander’

Drama is a smart take on TV’s antihero trend

Desperate men make for great drama. Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” for example, was pressed into the service of meth-making once bills and a cancer diagnosis gave him few alternatives. In “Spotless,” the first scripted drama series from Esquire, we find another hero who is forced to ply his craft at the service of the underworld, hoping to maintain the crumbling facade of his happy middle class life.

But that’s where the paths of Walter White and Jean Bastiere (André Grondin) diverge. Haunted by a childhood trauma that appears in flashback to have taken place in post-apocalyptic Panem (but it was probably just somewhere in the French countryside), Jean and his brother Martin (played as an adult by Denis Ménochet) are involved in a gruesome crime. As an adult, Jean is still trying to scrub it away, running his own crime scene cleanup business for which he regularly gets elbow deep in enough blood and brain splatter to make the set designers of “Dexter” salivate.

It’s only when his estranged brother comes back into town — carting with him a dead drug mule with a stomach full of saleable heroin  — that Jean goes rogue. He falls within the orbit of mob boss Nelson Clay, played by Brendan Coyle (better known as Bates, the source of the most boring plot lines on “Downton Abbey”).  He enlists Jean as his own personal murder Swiffer, there to clean up his villainous trail. This won’t end well.

In just the first two episodes, the show’s creators — Ed McCardie and Corinne Marrinan of “Shameless” and “CSI” respectively — have presented some potentially compelling characters. But the crucial question is, Where will the suspense lie? In “Breaking Bad” the fun was derived from watching this brilliant scientist outsmart his foes using his considerable skills. What will make us tune in week after week on “Spotless” when Jean will presumably be cleaning his way out of trouble?

By the rules of American television, there has to be something likeable or at least admirable about our protagonist Jean. Like a knock-off Jonathan Rhys Myers, he’s aloof and unapproachably handsome. Defined from the outset as a cheater, he comes across as pensive brat whose hot, supportive wife isn’t enough to keep him satisfied. Aside from his skills with bleach and a Q-tip, there’s very little so far that compels one to root for this hero to succeed.

But that’s hardly a reason to dismiss the show entirely. There are some inventive twists and well-placed comic moments. It doesn’t condescend to its audience with heavy foreshadowing. The show has the potential to become an export as beloved as shows like “Wallander” and “The Fall” — too smart for the mainstream and pleasing for those of us who consider ourselves above watching “Bones.