The fourth season of the French show “Call My Agent!” (on Netflix) has just been released, and fans will be dismayed to learn that it is the last. How can this warm, witty series abandon us in such an hour of need? It may be less than dignified to confess such feelings, I know. A lot of fuss has been made about the question of relatability in art, whether we should think of the made-up people we read about and watch as friends. No, of course not, and not just on aesthetic principle. People love to be repelled; that is why we have “Lolita,” “The Sopranos,” and the “Real Housewives” franchise. But there’s no pleasure like experiencing real affinity for fictional characters, and that is a commodity that “Call My Agent!,” with its sparkling comic tone and sincere heart, provides in abundance. The show has made for excellent company since it first came to the United States, four years ago, and though it’s not a mistake to end it now, before its charm slackens into cheesiness, it’s going to make us lonesome when it goes.
That the show is so likable is itself a joke—a good one. The characters in “Call My Agent!” are film agents, not exactly a beloved caste. They are always demanding, haranguing, cajoling, pleading, manipulating; they live off the talent of others. (The show’s French title is “Dix Pour Cent”: ten per cent, the cut that the agents take from the clients they represent.) Some of those others—writers, namely—have sought revenge by portraying agents as money-grubbing morons, sleazebags, and pitiful incompetents. Remember how Jerry Maguire was shunned by his colleagues after opting for integrity over the big bucks? Liz Lemon, on “30 Rock,” was represented by a small man in a large suit who looked as if he had yet to graduate from middle school and boasted a client roster composed primarily of celebrity dogs. But at A.S.K., the Agence Samuel Kerr, the agents do what they do for the sake of art. Like artists, they are governed by a sense of vocation; they want to pair the best actors with the best directors to make the best movies possible. “We create marriages,” Andréa Martel (the wonderful Camille Cottin) says. “Call My Agent!” is a television show that believes in the mortal necessity of cinema, and that is another reason to love it.
Really, though, much of what the agents do is try to prevent divorce. They serve as their clients’ babysitters and therapists, their ego-massagers, fire-putter-outers, motivational coaches, and guard dogs. They lie, steal, and bribe, neglect their children and risk abandonment by their partners, all in the name of keeping self-centered actors and maniacal auteurist directors happy. The show’s inspired conceit is that the famous people whom A.S.K. represents play themselves, which they do in fine, divaesque fettle. Juliette Binoche fends off a creepy executive at Cannes; Monica Bellucci, sick of the high life, tries to become a normal person; the workaholic Isabelle Huppert takes on too many roles and has to be smuggled across Paris from one set to another like precious contraband. In the current season, Sigourney Weaver shows up, speaking impressive French and insisting that the love interest in her latest film be switched out for a younger, hotter man. (The show, which was created by Fanny Herrero, pointedly comments on the film industry’s retrograde gender politics while keeping things light.) When Weaver meets resistance from a sexist director, she breaks into a big, showstopping dance number to get what she wants. “Call My Agent!” gives hot-shot actors a way to make fun of themselves while celebrating their medium, and they glow under the show’s arch, affectionate gaze. Apparently, when Weaver was offered the role, she accepted before reading the script.
The A.S.K. agents are better at making films than they are at making money, a problem that gives the show its through line. The first season began with a calamity: Samuel Kerr, the agency’s founder, who, rather un-Frenchly, had not taken a day off in a decade, finally went on vacation and promptly died, leaving the books very much out of order. (A hotel room that Kerr kept for extramarital trysts had been put on the company expense account: French after all.) The agent Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert), a wily operator with a cracked moral compass and a spectacular head of hair, tried to buy a controlling interest in the company, but the plan went awry when his wife, the scheme’s financier, discovered that he had spent two decades hiding a secret daughter, Camille (Fanny Sidney)—an ingénue from the South of France, who, in the series’ first episode, surprised Mathias by showing up at the A.S.K. offices incognito and getting hired as Andréa’s assistant.
In Season 2, a Trojan horse arrived in the form of Hicham Janowski (Assaad Bouab), a move-fast-and-break-things entrepreneur. He promised the agency solvency but, hélas!, had no respect for the traditions of cinema. Hicham was eventually tamed and sidelined, but not before fathering a daughter with his nemesis, Andréa. This was a surprise, most of all for Andréa, a committed lesbian. “Call My Agent!,” which features enough illicit interoffice romance to make an H.R. department spontaneously combust, owes much to the broad, antic traditions of boulevard theatre. People are always popping up in the wrong beds, confusing identities, slipping on the banana peel of life. Then they pick themselves up and head gamely off to make more mistakes in the name of passion, professional and otherwise. The purest relationship on the show is between the veteran agent Arlette (Liliane Rovère), a tough old dame, and her dog, Jean Gabin.
Now, in Season 4, the whole operation is teetering fatally on the brink. Andréa’s plan to open a new agency, hatched with her endearing schlub of a colleague Gabriel (Grégory Montel), has imploded. Mathias has departed with his paramour and former assistant Noémie (Laure Calamy, a treasure), for a stint at a production company, and his clients have left, too, for A.S.K.’s detested competitor, StarMédia. (Should they pursue a deal with Netflix? Mathias and Noémie wonder. So debasing, but so lucrative.) And there is a new antagonist: Elise Formain (Anne Marivin), one of StarMédia’s top agents, a shark in hot-pink lipstick. Elise, who has Andréa’s steel but not her spirit, is a classic homewrecker, which only underscores the fact that the office, for these crazy people, has become a family. So what will the agents do, now that it’s time to pack it all in? One of the funniest new plotlines involves the young agent Hervé (Nicolas Maury), who, accompanying a client to an audition, finds himself cast by the director instead. Hervé dreads what his colleagues will think when he tells them that he’s gone over to the other side and become an actor, one of them. When he finally confesses the truth, the scene is a sly pastiche of a coming out. He needn’t have worried. More actors means more agents. Everyone will be just fine.
What a relief that the United States, which has for so long exported itself around the world in the form of television, has finally begun to take an interest in TV from abroad. Lately, friends both online and off seem to be talking about another French show, “The Bureau” (on Sundance Now), created by Eric Rochant. If you have been singing the show’s praises for years, chapeau. If you haven’t yet seen it, stop reading and go watch; it’s that good.
“The Bureau,” too, deals with the fierce bonds of office life and the seductive thrills of acting, though it concerns performance of a very different kind. The show’s title refers to the bureau des légendes— a fictional undercover operation run by France’s foreign-intelligence service, the D.G.S.E. At the show’s start, Guillaume Debailly, an agent with the code name Malotru (Mathieu Kassovitz), has just returned home from a mission to Syria, where he lived, for six years, as a French teacher called Paul Lefebvre, gathering information and making contacts under the eye of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But Guillaume discovers that it’s not so easy to break character, especially once his lover from Damascus, the historian Nadia El Mansour (Zineb Triki), arrives in Paris to attend secret talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. At great cost to his colleagues, and to his country (let this serve as a reminder that one should keep a healthy distance from the C.I.A.), Guillaume clings to the fiction of being Paul—though who’s to say at what point a role, played with total conviction, crosses over and becomes the truth?
Following in the tradition of John le Carré, “The Bureau” succeeds both as an exemplary spy drama and as a critique of the same: it detonates the genre from within. We are taken, among other places, to Iran, where an operation to scope out nuclear progress is under way; to a brutal ISIS encampment; and to Moscow, where hackers do their hacking and the Cold War rivalries are alive and well. Our palms sweat; our hearts pound. And, like Guillaume, we fall in love—with him (Kassovitz, taut as a strung bow, is perfect in the role), and with his colleagues at the dingy, half-lit offices of the D.G.S.E., the smart, dedicated people who have to clean up his mess. But are the bureau’s missions crucial to global security, or does all this elaborate playacting merely give the agents the chance to be part of the drama somewhere else?
Le Carré gave us a West that, without an ideology to guide it, had lost its ideals. The France of “The Bureau,” meanwhile, doesn’t entirely understand the force of the ideology that it’s up against. One of the show’s strongest plots deals with the bureau’s attempts to track down radicalized French citizens who have gone abroad to fight for ISIS before they return to sow terror at home. There is a kind of grim revulsion among the older guard—how can French people do this? (The ugly question goes unasked: How can these people be French?) A sting is arranged. Pretending to be a lawyer, the agent Raymond Sisteron (Jonathan Zaccaï) offers to help the desperate sister of a jihadist in the hope that she will lead him to her brother in Iraq. The woman is a nurse, a pious Muslim and a caring soul. Sisteron likes her; he thinks he can win her trust. It never occurs to him that she has spent her own life forced to wear a mask, and is only waiting for the chance to take it off. ♦