Call My Agent! Will Gompertz reviews Netflix's French comedy drama series ★★★★★

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

Published
image copyrightNetflix/BBC

If history judges this to be a golden age of television overflowing with magnificent creations and wonderful spectacle, then Call My Agent! will be considered among the epoch's Crown Jewels.

The exquisitely crafted, beautifully written, brilliantly acted French comedy-drama series about life in a Parisian talent agency is close to perfection, unlike its protagonists who are marvellously flawed.

The show, which started in 2015, has developed over four series and five years from a cult hit into a lockdown sensation.

Season Four has just launched on Netflix, which will be the programme's last hurrah apparently. Let's hope the producers' word is as reliable as the double-crossing, endlessly conniving mavericks running the fictional ASK agency. It would be a great shame to consign such a fabulous cast of unbelievably believable, loveably unlovable characters to the back-catalogue just when they've become a core part of so many people's on-screen friendship group.

If you don't know them, let me introduce you:

There is the scheming but charming Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert), the agency's senior pro, whose attitude to the film industry is "either you eat everyone else, or you get eaten".

A little way along the agency's glass-fronted corridor is the good-natured but slightly hopeless Gabriel Sarda (Grégory Montel), who cannot bear to give his actors any bad news or lie to their faces, which is a serious shortcoming in the talent management game.

"Who's talking about lying?" asks his boss, "Simply don't tell the truth."

image copyrightNeflix
image captionThe suave but less than scrupulous Mathias Barneville (played by Thibault de Montalembert)
image copyrightNeflix
image captionGabriel Sarda (Grégory Montel) with his client - guest star - Franck Dubosc, who's having a crisis of confidence in the show

Set apart, in an office around the back is Arlette Azémar (Liliane Rovère), the oldest agent in France, a grand dame who considers herself more of an "impresario". Je l'adore, but she is mocked behind her back by colleagues who claim "she negotiated the contracts for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park".

Making up the quartet of ASK's wheeling-dealing ten-percent merchants (the French title of the show is Dix pour Cent - ten percent) is the formidable Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin), a kick-ass negotiator who doesn't suffer fools, or anybody else for that matter, unless they happen to be a film star or an attractive young woman looking for a good time without strings.

image copyrightNeflix
image captionArlette Azémar (Liliane Rovère) - seen second from left - says her family are ASK and her beloved dog
image copyrightNeflix
image captionJean Reno, who's also acted in Hollywood films including Mission: Impossible, makes a guest appearance as the client of the workaholic Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin)

And so, episode by episode, we are drawn into their messy dog-eat-dog world; the unglamorous side of the movie business where they have to sacrifice everything and anything to make sure their cossetted and needy actors get exactly what they want when they want.

It is a recipe for drama, with the added spice of frequent cameos from real-life movie stars willingly sending up themselves and their profession.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sigourney Weaver, Jean Dujardin, Isabelle Adjani, and Juliette Binoche all make very welcome guest appearances.

image copyrightGroupe France Télévisions
image captionSigourney Weaver showing off her dancing skills to prove a point in Season Four
image copyrightGroupe France Télévisions
image captionThe Oscar-winning actor Juliette Binoche goes "off-script" at the Cannes Film Festival in Season Two

Season Four maintains the same rarefied heights of excellence of the previous three, as our bold and increasingly beleaguered agents do battle with the corporate ogre that is StarMédia, an array of recalcitrant actors, and - mostly - each other.

They are the ultimate dysfunctional work family living up to Tolstoy's famous saying: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Their way is the French way.

Pastis at 10am if you're down, dancing till dawn if you're up.

media captionThe show has seen a long list of French A-list stars

They might be going through relationship hell, professional nightmares, and financial crises, but none of it really matters because they're in Paris - so life is beautiful whatever happens.

And, a lot does happen. Especially when you add three ambitious assistants harbouring secrets, a spivvy boss in the shape of Hicham Janowski (Assaad Bouab), who has plenty of opinions but no idea what he's doing, and Sofia (Stéfi Celma) the receptionist and wannabe actor.

image copyrightNeflix
image captionGabriel Sarda (Grégory Montel), Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin) and Hicham Janowski (Assaad Bouab)
image copyrightNetflix
image captionSofia Leprince (Stéfi Celma) is desperate for acting success and relies on assistant Camille Valentini (Fanny Sidney) for support

The scriptwriting is very good, a fine example of the less-is-more school of creating recognisable fictional worlds. The characters are so well observed that we can identify with them as rounded people to whom we can relate. Their personalities ring true, their motives logical, if often questionable. You don't need thousands of words when Hicham's casual glance towards Andréa establishes tone, atmosphere and plot line. The only question you're asking yourself is who is going to insult whom first.

What can I say if you've never seen it, other than imagine combining Friends and Frasier - two of the best city-life sitcoms ever made - and add a château full of French style and wit (for us non-French speakers the English subtitles are easily absorbed).

Call My Agent! is a masterpiece of contemporary television: an intelligent, romantic, surprising and very addictive satire with a cast of characters destined for the small screen's Hall of Fame. Oh, and the score is terrific, too.

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