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I deal with publicists and public-relations professionals all the time. All the bloody time. Mostly it’s a cordial professional relationship. In rare instances, it isn’t. Some people in PR are rude, soulless cranks whose hatred of the press borders on derangement. Remember Sarah Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany bloviating for Trump? Hey, it takes all kinds.
Flack (streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Friday) is about the PR professionals at an upmarket (read: expensive) firm in London. It is delightfully cynical, but sometimes bittersweet, funny and occasionally outright brilliant. Especially about the often loathsome clients these characters are paid to babysit, promote and protect.
Anna Paquin plays Robyn, an American who decamped to England after her mother’s suicide, as we come to learn. Ferociously efficient, clever and ruthless, Robyn’s the one who gets a soccer player out of trouble when he’s literally locked up in a sex club and needs rescuing. An appealingly complex figure, Robyn is the character you might hate for her crisp cynicism at first but begin to admire when she reacts with fierce moral force to some celebrity who’s just gone too far.
The series aired in the United Kingdom and the United States in 2019 to both acclaim and some disapproval of its withering take on media and publicity manipulation. It is acknowledged, however, that it is superbly written and has some of the most darkly comic dialogue ever.
Robyn is not only a promoter, she’s also the one who turns up when some sports star thinks the guy he’s been doing drugs with in a hotel room is dead. That’s in the opener, and then the episode hangs on the matter of a TV chef, loved by millions, who has been philandering for years. A woman is threatening to go to the press with photos. It is established that Robyn can handle this with aplomb but also has a cocaine habit and is not above having sex with a client to prove a point, even if that point is her own emptiness.
The back and forth between the PR agents is priceless. Robyn’s colleague Eve (Lydia Wilson) has a meanness that is both hilarious and breathtaking. “I only buy handbags made by free-range children,” she says. One of Eve’s clients is the real-life UFC star Conor McGregor, who wants to write a children’s book. She’s mean to interns and says to one, “Has anyone told you that you look skinny when you stand up for yourself?” Robyn declares to the same intern, “Just always assume we’re lying to people.”
There are two superb episodes. In one, Robyn and her boss Caroline (Sophie Okonedo, who is brilliantly haughty here) must manage a soccer star’s wedding. The episode unfolds with a dark, zinging humour that’s unnerving. The other little masterpiece of mordant humour takes place entirely on a plane flying to New York from London. Robyn is accompanying a client, a middle-aged American movie star named Calvin (played with menacing noxiousness by Bradley Whitford). She is trying to save him from a scandal mid-flight, and the tightly staged scenes are done with some genius. It also has a delicious denouement. There are six episodes available now and six more coming. Oh, goody; it’s that piquant and fresh.
Also airing this weekend
Sled Dogs: The Cold Truth About Man’s Best Friend (Saturday, Documentary Channel, 9 p.m.) has been on before but is a must-see if you’re not familiar. Filmmaker Fern Levitt tackles commercial sled-dog operations and the Iditarod race. It’s about what some dog mushers do. It’s about the image and the reality. And it’s a superb work, beautifully made and sharp as a poke in your eye. People are interviewed and say things that are plainly contradicted by their own actions and by others. Also, it’s a moving, poignant film about dogs.
Agatha Christie’s England (Sunday, PBS 10 p.m.) is what it says. It retraces the author’s life to see the places that inspired her work. It suggests Christie drew on her surroundings and immortalized people she encountered. Well, some of them anyway.
Also note that the fourth and final season of Call My Agent is now on Netflix. This droll French hit revolves around a talent agency in Paris and the machinations involved in keeping movie and TV stars happy and working. It has some hilarious cameos by real French stars, including Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche. It’s a lovely counterpoint to the witty asperity of Flack.
Join Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle and veteran writer Bill Brioux for a live webcast on Friday Feb 5th at 12 p.m. ET as they discuss the latest on the TV streaming battleground and what shows to add to your must-watch list. Globe and Mail subscribers can register at tgam.ca/experiences.