▶ Call My Agent! Season 4 (six episodes) is streaming on Netflix.

First screened on the France 2 channel in 2015, Netflix’s French series Call My Agent! (Dix pour cent) has been one of the classiest of recent streaming hits. The show excels in its sophisticated wit, its depth of character portrayal (for some roles, at least) and its exposure of the machinery behind Gallic show business. Recounting the intrigues – commercial and emotional – at fictitious Paris talent agency ASK, Call My Agent! elegantly balances the registers of comedy and melodrama. Each episode follows ASK’s staff as they amusingly wrangle actors’ contracts and caprices, but the series also insightfully handles emotional storylines, spinning them out over several seasons.

Among the key strands: the attempts of tyro Camille, unacknowledged daughter of agency boss Mathias, to succeed on her own; Mathias’s affair, burgeoning into mutual passion, with his assistant Noémie; the romance between long-suffering nice guy Gabriel and receptionist-turned-actress Sofia; and above all, the attempts of ASK’s star agent, swashbuckling lesbian Andréa, to balance private life and devotion to her job.

This superbly performed role has hugely boosted the profile of Camille Cottin, already famous from the TV comedy Connasse (2013) but now also the star of Mouche (2019), the French Fleabag remake, with a transatlantic career also opening up.

Similarly thriving are Laure Calamy (Noémie), starring in French box-office hit Antoinette dans les Cévennes, and Nicolas Maury, who plays gay character Hervé, directing and acting in his own Garçon chiffon (both films featured in 2020’s Cannes Official Selection).

Jean Dujardin as himself in Season 3 of Call My Agent!

Most famously, assorted luminaries have played themselves. Call My Agent! depicts French cinema as driven by its star system no less than Hollywood, albeit on a more manageable, even mundane scale.

The show has been most successful when actors have either flouted or sent up their images: hence Jean Dujardin (when still regarded as essentially a comic performer) portraying himself as a morbidly earnest Method type, and best of all, Isabelle Huppert blithely parodying her Stakhanovite reputation. The star content has sometimes brought considerable bite: Juliette Binoche’s episode effectively accused the Cannes Film Festival of colluding with powerful men who pursue actresses as sexual trophies.

Alas, Season 4 is a let-down. The acting is still strong, the writing still witty: you can well believe in a French bestseller called The Patience of the Toucan. But for the first time the characters’ storylines feel half-hearted, like needless supplements to what went before: Gabriel and Sofia have unresolved feelings, Mathias and Noémie are working through their altered professional relationship (with Calamy getting little scope to stretch beyond her trademark frazzled goofiness) and Andréa is saddled with a dreary running gag about handling childcare after her partner Colette walks out. Eccentric doyenne Arlette – with her dog Jean Gabin – is still underused, while perpetually nervy Hervé regrettably edges ever closer to being this show’s own John Inman camp stereotype.

Interestingly, the series continues to appeal to a specifically French audience and a very cinephile one: there are references to auteur names such as Xavier Beauvois and Christophe Honoré, and directors Valérie Donzelli and Guillaume Gallienne sportingly play themselves. Other figures are largely unknown outside France: for example, domestic favourite Franck Dubosc, shown trying to shed his comedy image in a gritty banlieue drama. Among the more widely known names, Sandrine Kiberlain decides she’s going to be a stand-up comic, but has no sense of humour: Kiberlain plays it gamely, but can’t overcome the fact that there’s nothing that funny about not being funny.

Sigourney Weaver as herself

Then there’s the Sigourney Weaver episode. The series has never previously evinced awe at its guests’ status; now, however, while Weaver’s grandeur is gently spoofed, her presence is also brandished as a sign of prestige. Weaver is indulged horribly with a scene in which she dances an impromptu Lindy Hop to a jazzy ‘Marseillaise’. It’s as if the series is for the first time pandering to an international audience that might fancy some Gallic cliché, of the sort seen in the much-derided Emily in Paris.

Several elements exploit familiar tropes of French raciness: a burst of comic nudity by the Seine, actor José Garcia hoping to rekindle an extramarital liaison. Also in this category comes a new character cut from the generic cloth of the Parisian femme fatale: ASK’s ruthless competitor Elise Formain, who uses flirtatious wiles to disarm Andréa. Nevertheless, the character works because she’s played with silky knowingness by Anne Marivin, who altogether owns this run.

But after three triumphant seasons, the fourth feels like a redundant afterthought. Perhaps it’s trying too hard: along with the team of screenwriters credited up front, the end credits also list five names responsible for story arcs, plus a “collaborator in character psychology”. And you can only imagine what the real-life agents did behind the scenes. Still, this season has taught us one thing: ‘faire le Lindy Hop’ is clearly French for ‘jumping the shark’.

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