Netflix’s “Thicker Than Water” follows a French journalist of Algerian descent named Fara (Madani). Fara has two sisters and a brother: Souhila (Kahina Carina), Yasmina (Carima Amarouche), and Selim (Radouan Leflahi). Souhila is a single mom who works as a masseuse, and she has two teenage girls, Lina (Paola Locatelli) and Imène (Mayane Sarah El Baze). Yasmina, who is a government employee, is married to Karim (Farid Zerzour), and they have two boys, Riad (Mohamed Ali Bouaziz) and Rayan (Bilel Bouzidi). Selim is apparently in the business of importing and exporting cars but is actually smuggling drugs for a gangster named Oumar (Djebril Zonga) and his two henchmen, Mayo (Walid Afkir) and Ketchup (S. Pri Noir). Fara, Yasmina, Souhila, and Selim’s mother are Louiza (Aïda Guechoud), and the whereabouts of their father is unknown because he walked out on them when they were just children. On the first day of Ramadan, things for the Bentayeb family go from barely okay to horrible as Fara, Yasmina, and Souhila are called to the police station regarding Selim’s disappearance.
Disclaimer: This review of “Thicker than Water” is based on the four episodes that were sent as screeners by Netflix.
The Writing Deals With Crime And The Politics Of France
One glance through Nawell Madani’s Wikipedia page will tell you that she is drawing a lot from her personal life while crafting “Thicker than Water.” She is of Algerian descent, who was born and brought up in Belgium, and then finally shifted to Paris. It also says that she faced a lot of pushback as she tried to enter the field of entertainment. And all that is there in the series and more. Fara’s rise through the ranks shows the power of social media and also highlights that virality doesn’t exactly equate to success because she still has to face the ire of her bosses for calling them peddlers of fake news. This contrasts well with Lina’s aspirations of becoming a Tik Tok star, as she’s completely oblivious to the pitfalls of that particular social media platform. Coming back to Fara’s journey, being from a minority Muslim community, she empathizes with the protests against Islamophobia in France while having to digest the bigotry at her workplace in order to make a name for herself. So, although her wins are worthy of celebration, her uphill struggle illustrates how skewed society is.
In addition to the politics surrounding Islam in France, the show celebrates the religion by unfolding the entire story over the month of Ramadan. Naturally, there’s a sense of holiness that perpetuates through the family gatherings, which in turn gives the characters’ eagerness to overcome their hurdles a whole new meaning. But the show also takes on the difficult task of introspecting the impact that immigrants have on the places they inhabit. With the exception of Selim, the Bentayebs probably exemplify how immigrants are expected to stay in a country that is raring to demonize them. Therefore, every act of rebellion comes with consequences, which force them to conform to the rules imposed upon them. Those who don’t wish to bow down have to resort to illegal means to eclipse the stature of their oppressors, which is personified by Oumar. However, by doing so, they run the risk of stereotyping the entire community and attracting hate towards those who are just trying to make ends meet and live a normal life. Amidst all this complex commentary, the showrunners manage to find room for some humor as the characters constantly find themselves in such ridiculous situations that laughter is the only thing that can help them out of it.
The Tone Oscillates Between Comedy And Tension
If the setting of the show moves to the inside of a vehicle, I can guarantee you that it’s going to have you in tears of laughter. As far as I can remember, it happened a total of four times in the four episodes that I watched. Yasmina’s arguments with her two sons are hilarious. The moment Fara, Lina, Souhila, and Yasmina had to dump a car, I was in splits because of the chaos and how everyone was making valid points from their perspective. Then there’s the scene where Fara has an awkward conversation with Samuel (Vincent Rottiers). Finally, there’s the scene where Fara, Yasmina, and Souhila yank Lina and Imène out of a party, and Souhila goes ballistic on not just her own daughters but her daughter’s friends as well. That said, the comedy slowly morphs into tension as the stakes start getting bigger and more dangerous, thereby making these blips of levity seem like a smokescreen for the oncoming horror.
The pacing of the show is impeccable. Those 30 minutes go by like it’s nothing. Nowadays, cinematography is usually associated with wide shots of landscapes. But you need to watch this series to understand how a cityscape can be used to create dynamic and eye-popping frames. I don’t think it’ll come as a surprise to anyone that the showrunners don’t romanticize France at all like most movies and shows used to do in the past. In fact, there has been a change in the way the country has been represented by French artists in the past few years, and it’s good to see a Netflix show continuing that trend. The attention to detail in terms of costume design, production design, set design, hair, and make-up says so much about the characters’ mindsets before they even utter a word. The soundtrack is excellent, and it always succeeds in accentuating the mood of the scene. In addition to all that, I want to say that I like the choice to use narration as a storytelling device. I know it’s scoffed at by people who have watched too many “Cinemasins” videos. However, it’s a cinematic tool as old as the camera itself. So, get with it.
Every Actor In Deserves A Deafening Round Of Applause For Their Performance.
Nawell Madani is obviously the star of the show, and she deserves every bit of that spotlight. The strength, charisma, vulnerability, and warmth that she exudes are palpable. Every time Fara snaps back at Philippe Escoffier (being played by Aurélien Wiik, who is giving a great performance, too), I can’t stop myself from cheering. Every time Fara jokes around with her family, it feels so genuine and reflective of the years they’ve spent with each other. And every time Fara finds herself at a crossroads, you get the urge to reach through the screen and tell her that she’s going to get through this as well because you don’t want to see her lose in a game where the odds are already against her. Kahina Carina, Carima Amarouche, Paola Locatelli, Mayane Sarah El Baze, and Aïda Guechoud are excellent as Fara’s support system. All of them get to show a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses, which helps ground the plight of the Bentayebs. But it’s Guechoud who hits me square in the chest as she aptly essays the decades of strife her character has faced while maintaining an air of optimism.
In a matter of seconds, Radouan Leflahi establishes what Selim is like. The only thing he is honest about is his love for Fara, and that’s evident every time they hug each other. Everything else about him is extremely shifty. It’s quite interesting to witness the difference between him and his family, which is full of women who have learned how to carve a place for themselves, while he is dependent on criminals. Talking about the criminals, I really like the subtlety with which Djebril Zonga, Walid Afkir, and S. Pri Noir operate. They aren’t mustache-twirling villains. They feel like a symptom of the growing issues in the community. They are intimidating, especially Zonga, because of their physicality and the way they communicate their threats with their eyes. And it’s that calmness that feels frightening. Vincent Rottiers is excellent as the cop who is knee-deep in a mess made by him. Paul Hamy is the rare ray of sunshine, as his concern for Fara is so organic. Farid Zerzour gives off an insane level of neckbeard energy, and the constant bickering between the siblings, Bouaziz and Bouzidi, makes for some of the funniest scenes in the show.
Nawell Madani and Simon Jablonka have crafted a competent show that looks like your run-of-the-mill crime thriller series on Netflix. But as you sit with it, you begin to realize that it has so much to say about Islam, the Muslim community in France, the Islamophobia in the country, the condition of journalism and the police force, and how small decisions can have massive consequences for those who have settled in the country, whereas those who are born there can get a free pass regardless of the circumstances. It’s probably no coincidence that “Thicker Than Water” has been released during Ramadan. So, watching it during this auspicious time, with your family (it’s right there in the title of the show) or on your own, will probably allow you to unpack your thoughts and emotions about the aforementioned topics. In addition to that, you’ll get to experience the oodles of talent emanating from the cast, which makes it an all-around win-win situation for everyone.