For those who enjoy entertainment industry meta-comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, and Entourage, the excellent French series Call My Agent! (a.k.a. Dix pour cent) offers a different, refreshing perspective as well as an emotionally robust viewing experience. Fanny Herrero’s comedy-drama—now on Netflix in the United States—focuses on Parisian talent agency ASK. Each hourlong episode (24 in total, so far) typically features one to a handful of French celebrities playing heightened versions of themselves, as the agents and assistants of ASK scramble to keep them happy, working, and their productions running on time. Mostly it’s pure calamity, which gives the series an exhilarating forward momentum. For the employees of ASK, work is life—even as they lie and backstab their way through it.
In its premiere, Call My Agent! seems like it will mainly focus on Camille (Fanny Sidney), a young woman fresh off the bus in Paris who immediately schemes her way into working for ASK despite the protestations of one of its top agents, Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert). Their connection is unclear for awhile, and I won’t ruin the reveal. But the series quickly opens up to include the firm’s partner agents in subsequent episodes: first the bumbling but amiable Gabriel (Grégory Montel), then grand dame Arlette (Liliane Rovère), and ultimately Andréa (Camille Cottin), whose cutthroat attitude and cavalier romantic life ends up stealing the show. (If Bette and Shane from The L Word were combined into one person, she would manifest as Andréa). The three assistants are also absolute gems, including not just Camille but the droll Hervé (Nicholas Maury) and over-stimulated Noémie (Laure Calamy).
The personal and professional fortunes of those working at ASK rise and fall rapidly; people are constantly threatening the leave, the agency itself is often in peril. On a micro level, there are schedule mistakes, double bookings, the stealing of clients, negotiations, scheming. It’s full of awkward moments—everyone is constantly juggling everything, hijinks ensue. And yet, the madcap manipulations always lead to the bearing of important truths, which bolster the show’s many cathartic emotional climaxes. This despite the fact that everyone lies to each other constantly. It’s all extraordinarily stressful, and yet, clearly life-giving to those who really love it, love the business, love their place in making it all happen.
But the French film industry is not Hollywood. Things are ultimately more intimate, and have a different focus regarding creativity and production. This contrast is most tangible in the third and fourth seasons, when the agency contends with American producers who are dour, abrupt, and obsessed with the financial bottom line and suing everyone. Those kinds of problems do come up in the French productions as well, and yet, Call My Agent! is more about the friend and even family-like relationships the agents have with their talent. There’s no groveling or extreme deferential treatment with these stars (even those who are recognizable to Americans, like Monica Bellucci or Isabelle Huppert). Instead there is just care, a desire to do right by them, and also seeing and understanding them as people. (Of note: I’m sure I’m missing a lot of French inside jokes and references to the featured celebrities, but regardless, it’s easy to see how much fun they are having embracing the satire and/or making themselves seem positively loony).
Despite the mischief, Call My Agent! has surprisingly depth for a show branded as a comedy; its best recurring theme is a thoughtful consideration of how women’s’ bodies are considered commodities in entertainment and beyond. Whether in regards to ageism, nudity, expectations to “play nice” with rich financiers, or even childbirth and motherhood, Call My Agent! brings these issues to the foreground so organically it took me four seasons to realize how truly expertly it had done so. In most comedies (especially in other industry-insider series written by men), there’s an erroneous assumption that women have to fail, or literally fall on their face, before viewers will support their rise. But in Call My Agent!, women take their power and are rewarded with more of it; they are successful not because they fail first, but because they simply work hard and excel. Yet while that may be true for agents, it isn’t always for creatives; one of the most fascinating storylines is that of Sofia (Stéfi Celma), ASK’s talented receptionist who has dreams of becoming a film actress. Her story, told throughout the seasons, is one that feels the most realistic in terms of a new talent struggling to not just become famous, but to be respected—an almost old-school notion now that certainly feels more French than American.
Call My Agent!’s narrative structure is also different from many American series in that while it does more or less stick to an Actor of the Week model, it’s rare for those stories to end after an episode. Repercussions and consequences linger, even though the series handles time in casual ways (without explanation, sometimes a week or a month will have passed, sometimes only a day; whatever best fits the narrative trajectory). It’s not simply that there is an episodic plot verses a season-long arc; some things take several episodes to pan out, others multiple seasons. Call My Agent! has so many wonderful characters that wherever it rests its gaze is fascinating, and however long it decides to linger there or when it decides to return feels incredibly natural. Like ASK’s mantra regarding film production, everything starts with the script, and Call My Agent!’s is extremely well-drawn.
But it cannot be overlooked that the series is also very funny. It’s a light watch, even when it dips into heavier plotlines, and the way it resolves its dramas are endlessly satisfying. Despite their foibles and shifting alliances, you care deeply about these characters. They forgive one another and move on, why shouldn’t we? Each episode feels like a clean slate, even when stories or difficulties carry over. There is always a sense that the world is turning, that things will get sorted out, that everything can ultimately be overcome. The employees of ASK are both creatures of habit and constant revolutionaries, and the show balances this in compelling ways.
As must always be said regarding foreign language series: Yes, you should watch with subtitles. You won’t miss the cutting glances and hysterical physical humor, I promise. Call My Agent! moves fast, and its wonderfully expressive performers won’t make you feel like you’re reading your way through—even though you are. Experiencing it is a breeze, but savor it; you might be surprised by how fast you fly through it. The agents feel a constant pull to ASK, and the same is true for viewers; you want to linger near its chaos, never missing a thing.
All four seasons of Call My Agent! are available to stream on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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