There are certain things you learn when you cover the entertainment racket for more than the length of a TV season. You learn that many actors aren't all that interesting.
Sometimes the most intriguing people you meet are behind the scenes. The agents and publicity people are, often, the truly tortured, driven figures that are memorable. One imagines it's the same in politics. The captivating figures are in the backrooms – the fixers, bagmen and advisers who tell the politician what to do and say.
There have been several good series about the TV and movie industries that feature agents and Entourage made a good stab at satire through the wicked energy of agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), whose paranoia about losing a client drives him to extreme and aggressive behaviour. But Entourage sometimes erred on the side of broad satire in depicting the machinations of a Hollywood agent.
Call My Agent! (streaming on Netflix) is perhaps the most accurate and captivating series about the actual work of agents who handle actors. A French-language series, it's an absolute gem, making the professional and personal lives of agents the focus of humour that is gentle, yet astringent.
The series is about a small group of people who work at a boutique Paris talent agency and try to do their best for a number of clients whose success fuels the agency. The original French title is Dix pour cent, which pithily explains the bedrock of the business – the agency gets 10 per cent of what the clients earn. What makes it highly enjoyable is the combination of wry satire about show business and sympathy for these people who are obliged to treat celebrities as family in order to make a living. Real French stars such as Nathalie Baye and Cécile de France appear as characters and you can tell they participate because there is never an overt sense that the humour is meant to be savage about actors and their handlers.
Much of the action in the first series of six episodes is built around what happens in the first episode, a delicious light comedy that gently probes into the dynamics of representing and caring for a star. Cécile de France is up for a major role in a coming Quentin Tarantino movie. It would be a huge break for a French actor and highly lucrative for her agent, Gabriel (Grégory Montel), and his colleagues. When word arrives that the actress is not being hired because she is too old, Gabriel is horrified and hesitates to inform her. She finds out and is furious about not learning the bad news from her agent. She fires him.
What is striking about the storyline is the sympathy expressed for both the actor and the agent. Gabriel is genuinely hurt on her behalf and saddened by the news. The Cécile character is, in the end, neither histrionic nor nasty. She just feels diminished by the cynicism of the industry.
Much of the perspective on the strange antics and odd machinations of the agency comes from the character Camille (Fanny Sidney), who falls into a job as an assistant at the office after she goes to see senior agent Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert), who happens to be her birth father. He had a fling with Camille's mother 20 years earlier at the Cannes film festival.
Camille is neither an ingénue nor an idiot. She's just an ordinary young woman who brings a common-sense attitude to her work. As she makes mistakes and grasps the necessary conniving that goes on, she remains endearingly relatable.
Call My Agent! can be very witty about the ego and frailties of stars. When Gabriel tells Mathias that Cécile has been rejected, he grasps the situation instantly: "An actress at 40 is very fragile! It's like being 60 for other women." But at its heart, the series – the episodes are an hour in length, rare for a comedy – is very wise about working in show business. The characters are fully rounded, there is no stereotyping and no embracing of the impulse to be vicious about this peculiar world of movies and TV stars.
Awards season is just ending and we've all had the experience of hearing actors thank agents and handlers in acceptance speeches. Call My Agent! explains why and has lot of droll fun doing so.