There should be a word for the feeling you get upon finding a series to stream that just clicks for you. A series that creates a reality you want to marinate in for as long as possible. Bingetopia? Telecstasy? Streamjoyment? Happy Streams? Probably none of those. But it is definitely the feeling I have while watching the French show Call My Agent on Netflix. The series, which follows the lives of several entertainment agents and assistants working at ASK, a struggling firm, has a deliciously perfect balance of juicy behind-the-scenes logistics, workplace drama, farcical humor, endless celebrity cameos, and empathetic human interest stories. And the way these characters grow and change over the course of four seasons to become the most honest and true version of themselves!?! It’s perfection.
The series opens as Samuel Kerr (Alain Rimoux)—the founder and head of ASK—is about leave for his first vacation in many years. It’s clear that he’s adored by all of the employees at ASK, and that he’s the glue that holds their disparate personalities and work styles together. So you know he’s never coming back. Nope. At the very end of the first episode, his colleagues learn that he has died in Rio de Janeiro from swallowing a wasp (not a euphemism).
His death throws the agency into chaos. His clients, some of the biggest stars, start jumping ship and his widow wants to sell his shares in the agency to the highest bidder. The other agents are pitched into a panic and a power struggle. Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert) is the straight-laced, money-focused shark of the group who is rarely anything but perfectly dressed in a suit and tie. He is clearly gunning to fill the leadership vacuum that Samuel left. Ready to assist Mathias in almost any plot he cooks up is his very, very devoted and incredibly capable assistant Noémie (Laure Calamy), who may just be breathlessly in love with him, and definitely cracks me up on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Mathias is trying to keep it under wraps that Camille Valentini (Fanny Sidney), his secret daughter from an affair twenty-something years ago, has moved from Côte d’Azur to Paris, and has managed to land herself a job as his coworker and chief rival Andréa’s (Camille Cottin) assistant. Andréa, when she’s not having one-night stands with women she picks up in bars or online, is singularly focused on her clients and their projects. Her expectations are that everyone else will be just as willing to forgo having any kind of outside life. Her closest friend at the agency is also her polar opposite. Gabriel (Grégory Montel), schlubby, well-meaning, and kind, works hard for his clients, but often gets himself into trouble by trying to protect their feelings. During periods of depression, he comforts himself by spraying canned whip cream directly into his mouth. He’s assisted by Hervé (Nicolas Maury) who keeps Gabriel in line and dreams of becoming an agent himself someday. Arlette (Liliane Rovère) and her dog Jean Gabin are the old guard of the agency. She started out with Samuel when it was just the two of them in one room. She is a font of knowledge, stories, and wisdom, plus she sees through everyone’s ruses. And working at reception is Sofia (Stéfi Celma), a young woman who dreams of becoming an actress, if only any of the agents she works with stopped long enough to give her a chance.
I often take Very Special Guest Stars on a series as a sign of the shark being jumped, but, unsurprisingly, Call My Agent is different. French celebrities, a lot of whom I’m ashamed to say I don’t recognize, guest star as themselves in each and every episode, with the plots centering on their personal and professional dramas. (Dominique Besnehard, one of the show’s producers, worked as a manager for two decades, and many of the guest stars were once his clients.) In the first episode, for example, Cécile de France is turned down for a role in a Quentin Tarantino film because, at the age of not quite forty, she is considered too old for the part. Gabriel, afraid of hurting her feelings, tries to avoid giving her the bad news, which, of course, only makes things worse. Meanwhile, Mathias goes behind Gabriel’s back to convince Tarantino’s people to hire Cécile, which they agree to only if she is willing to get some adjustments to her face—like fillers. It’s a whole knotty mess, which is smoothed out (no pun intended, but also, ha!) in the end. The show isn’t only focused on the sexism and misogyny in the film industry, but—whether it’s aging actresses, or sexual expectations, or unequal promotions, or balancing motherhood and career—over and over it shows how things are more difficult and complicated for women, which I greatly appreciate about the show.
The celebrity appearances are a fun and authentic way to focus each episode and move the story forward, but it’s the central cast of characters and their stories that makes this show so intensely good. Even the messiest, prickliest, and most conniving of them are ultimately people who earn your respect and understanding, even if, like me, you don’t fully like them until the very end. I don’t know that I’ve ever watched a show where the characters felt quite so much like real people with real lives. All of them, with the exception of Arlette, grow up over the course of the series. And yes, I am talking about people who range in age from their early twenties to their early fifties, but growing up is the only way to explain how they move toward greater honesty with and understanding of themselves and each other. (It is the beautiful irony of this show that to become the kind of family the agency pretends to be in the beginning, they must first destroy everything they thought was important.) Arlette is the exception because, as the grande dame of the agency, she has arrived at her destination. While everyone else moves at a frantic pace, desperate to stay ahead, desperate to balance their clients, romantic relationships, friendships, and family dramas, Arlette walks the halls in her long skirts with Jean Gabin trotting by her side at a deliberate, unrushed pace. She smokes joints, reminisces, giggles at actors’ grudges, listens to jazz records, collaborates, and works steadily, but with none of the constant worry that hounds her younger colleagues. The only times she seems at loose ends is when something is wrong with Jean Gabin. All I want to do is grow up to be like Arlette who can tell two men that, outside the bedroom, dick size contests don’t interest her, and who gives comfort and solace to a colleague on the edge with the same even-keeled calm by offering sage wisdom like, “sorrows, men…they all go up in smoke.” Is she my favorite character? Probably. I definitely wished we had seen more of her in each season, but I also cannot fully express how much I enjoy all these characters. How much they all made me cry, shake my fists in frustration, and laugh out loud. (This is even true of Hicham (Assaad Bouab), an antagonistic character who shows up in the second season and about whom I was extremely skeptical at first, but really came to empathize with and respect.)
And can I say how much I adore the often slapstick humor that is peppered throughout most episodes? For a show that is constantly building stories about affairs, liaisons, backroom deals, double crossings, jealousies, and all manner of other sticky entanglements, it makes lots of room for comedy. When Gabriel and Hervé try to ensure that a nervous actor manages to pass a driving test he has already failed several times, for example, they go on a covert operation that includes dividing the route into zones and many flurried phone calls back and forth In another instance, they trail a competing agent on a motorized scooter, their faces pinched with spy-like concentration. Or any of the many times when the three assistants are eavesdropping on conversations or people are racing around trying to fix some mistake or miscommunication before a star finds out. Or the disgusted looks Hervé makes as he fields the many, many phone calls from people trying to directly contact celebrity clients. (Okay, it’s possible that Hervé is my favorite character. I was smitten from the moment he shows Camille around the office and nonchalantly offers her savory bits of office gossip. But ask me again in five minutes and I will probably name someone else.) Most of my favorite moments were small, but they made me snort with laughter.
Whenever I review a show that I cherish as unabashedly as I do this one, I fret that I will fall short of doing it justice. If I could, I would sit you down and tell you, point by point, my favorite moments in each and every episode, but sounds like it could be pretty dire on your end. A better plan is for you to trust that I’m falling woefully short of doing this series justice, and give watching it a try for yourself.