Best of 2020: Malcolm McDowell on Spiral, Call My Agent and The Bureau

The legendary actor, now starring in Free Lunch Express, waxes rhapsodic about his favorite shows of the year – which all happen to be French.

Weirdly enough, it just so happens that all my favorite shows this year have been French. There’s a terrific cop show called Spiral, which is a little bit like an updated French equivalent of Hill Street Blues, which I liked very much back in the day. Before watching this, I knew nothing of the French legal system – how they do things and how the magistrates are part of the investigation – so I found that fascinating. I love the series and I thought it was terrific. There are seven or eight seasons of it, and I watched them all.

Another great French show is called Call My Agent, which I think is spectacular. In fact, I started watching it from the very beginning again recently, just to see whether I was overstating how good it is – and I wasn’t. It’s really good, quite charming, and is about a whole situation that I know only too well – people in “the business,” as they say – which I think makes it extra special for me.

My top pick is a television series called The Bureau, which is a very smart, fascinating look at espionage and the DGSE (General Directorate of External Security), the French equivalent of the CIA. A lot of the stories are based in Iran, Syria and parts of North Africa. I thought it was so interesting and beautifully done, and I turned on a lot of people to this show. I think anybody who sees The Bureau would love it.

One of the main reasons why I loved The Bureau is that it’s really a love story, and the whole landscape of it is espionage, which I also love. (I’m a big fan of John le Carré, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham.) The lead actor in The Bureau, Mathieu Kassovitz, is absolutely superb, and his character has an amazing love story with a Syrian woman, played by Zineb Triki, who’s in her late 30s. She’s so beautiful and has such an amazing presence, and she’s brilliantly utilized in the show. She’s not oversaturated; it’s a story of unrequited love and they make you wait a long time for the characters to meet. It was driving me nuts! The Bureau is really spectacular, and I think it’s one of the best series I’ve seen on television.

I love bingeing, and I think it’s a fantastic way to see a show. For me, television is so wonderful because you can get into the characters in a way you can’t in a movie; with two hours, you really can’t cover all the bases unless it’s a genius piece of writing. But in a TV series, the characters can really grow. I remember when I did Mozart in the Jungle, I was laughing with Paul Weitz, the creator of the show, about how my character, Thomas Pembridge, ended up being so different from how he was in Season 1, Episode 1. It’s beautiful, because we all grow and change radically over time, and it’s great to see it in a show. So that’s why I love bingeing, and that’s why love television. Really well-written television is just about as good as it gets.

Malcolm McDowell has created a gallery of iconic characters since catapulting to the screen as Mick Travis, the rebellious upperclassman in Lindsay Anderson’s prize-winning sensation, If… His place in movie history was subsequently secured by playing the gleefully amoral Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; when McDowell himself conceived the idea for Mick Travis’ further adventures in Anderson’s Candid-like masterpiece, O Lucky Man!; and when he wooed Mary Steenburgen and defeated Jack the Ripper as the romantically inquisitive H.G. Wells in, Time After Time. Among his numerous film and TV roles are the tyrannical Soran (the destroyer of Capt. Kirk) in Star Trek: Generations; his Machiavellian Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island and his comically pompous professor Steve Pynchon in Pearl, opposite Rhea Perlman. He had a recurring role as Terence on Entourage, played Professor Cornwallis on Community, was a series regular in Amazon’s hit show Mozart in the Jungle and the new Simon Pegg/Nick Frost-penned show, Truth Seekers. His latest film, Free Lunch Express, is available on VOD on all digital platforms on December 4. In 2012, Malcolm was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.