After watching the first season of Emily in Paris and thoroughly regretting every second, a friend recommended I try another Netflix offering instead. Call My Agent!, the buzzy dramedy series about a French talent agency, has all the dreamy Parisian settings without the grating American protagonist — and the clothes are better too, my friend promised.
Call My Agent! premiered in 2015 on France 2 under the title Dix Pour Cent (“ten percent”), and the show has since gained a new and highly enthusiastic international audience thanks to being picked up by the streaming giant. Television critic Robert Lloyd just detailed for the Los Angeles Times how Call My Agent! “became an American sensation.” Suddenly it seems as though everyone I know is either gushing about this series or looking forward to watching eventually, as soon as their brains can handle subtitles again. (I admit that, while ultimately worth it, having to pay such close attention right now is a struggle.)
Even though much of Call My Agent!’s draw is escapist — the casually impeccable Parisian style; lavish parties for the Cannes Film Festival and César Awards — it’s also, strangely, a nostalgic comfort for those of us missing the camaraderie and, perhaps even more importantly, the gossip afforded by the workplaces we left behind last year. Though my own office isn’t quite as small and intimate as the Samuel Kerr Agency, or ASK, its ambitious employees’ total inability to separate their personal and professional lives is all too familiar to me.
When we meet our cast, ASK’s namesake and founder has just died, leaving the remaining agents scrambling to ensure the company’s future. There’s Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert), angling to be the new patriarch of what he frequently calls the ASK “family” — which is complicated when a member of his actual family, an estranged daughter, Camille (Fanny Sidney) shows up and lands herself a job there. Camille has the tough task of assisting Andréa (Camille Cottin), an incredibly chic, shrewd, and demanding agent who both works hard and plays hard. Most of the women I know who’ve devoured all four seasons of Call My Agent! either want to be Andréa or sleep with Andréa (or both, tbh). She’s gorgeous, darkly funny, a true believer in the transformative power of film, and a breathtakingly bossy femme dyke — truly, what more could you ask for?
Mathias, Andréa, and their fellow agent Gabriel (Grégory Montel) are all work-obsessed, ready and willing to devote every hour of their days to the needs of their actors, no matter how silly or frivolous. A revolving cast of real French stars, including Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert, ups the stakes: Should ASK lose even a single A-list client, the future of the agency could be in jeopardy. The agents are ruthless, quick to backstab one another so that their own client gets the role or the award, but ultimately they have to work together to succeed. In that way — the screaming at each other one minute, begrudgingly bailing each other out the next — ASK does resemble a real family, one composed of hypercompetitive siblings who must weigh their own interests against those of the whole, who have to put up with one another’s more loathsome qualities because fate would have it that they’re stuck together.
There’s a similar though less transgressively French vibe to Industry, HBO’s 2020 drama about a group of young graduates competing for permanent positions at an investment bank in London. Wistful nostalgia swept over me when I binged the series’ first season last year. Like the agents at ASK, the wannabe bankers at Industry’s Pierpoint are hungry and ruthless, willing to sell each other out to get ahead — and yet, united by the same dizzying pressures, the same resentments for the same asshole bosses, they only have each other for commiseration and camaraderie. Anyone outside of that intense, rarefied world just couldn’t possibly understand.
Like ASK’s agents, the Pierpoint crew are smart, charming, worldly, cunning. They can be generous and they can be impossibly cruel, to each other and to themselves. The series focuses on Harper Stern (Myha'la Herrold), a Black upstate New Yorker who fudges her college credentials to take a shot at the prestigious program. Her peers hail from around the world, many of them with more resources and connections than she has, but they are unified in their hunger for power, hard drug habits, and generally excessive horniness.
There’s nothing enviable about the workplace environment in Industry, where its young hopefuls work such long hours some of them end up sleeping in the office; one, in the first episode, never even makes it home — Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan) is found dead in a bathroom stall. And yet the intrigue of who’s sleeping with whom (there’s a lot of sex in this show) awakened in me a longing for the bygone days of frivolous office gossip. A holiday party episode was the worst offender: Remember drinking way too much, gushily complimenting girls you’ve never talked to before in line for the bathroom, dancing somewhat inappropriately with a married C-suite exec? There’s something uniquely terrible/wonderful about getting all dressed up and going a little crazy with your coworkers, best friends and nemeses and strangers you recognize from the hallway. There’s nothing that guarantees some top-tier office gossip more than a holiday party.
But Industry made sure to cut through the sexy fun times of its holiday party episode when one troubled young employee slams himself into a glass wall until he bleeds and passes out — not so enviable a workplace environment after all. At least in Call My Agent!, people are working themselves to the bone for the sake of art. Making rich people richer and offering up your soul to the endless crush of capital is a little harder to paint in a positive light.
But of course, ASK agents are also working under capitalism, and one of the most interesting aspects of the show is how its various personalities juggle their artistic visions with financial obligations. In the first season, Andréa successfully convinces a director to gender-swap a role so that its protagonists become lesbian lovers, and in one of the show’s final episodes, she goes to bat for her client Sigourney Weaver, who’d rather have a hot young male love interest in her new French film rather than the old fuddy-duddy originally cast. (It’s a really, really fun episode.) But even in the sunny, soapy vision of work that Call My Agent! presents — disasters and disagreements are resolved all too easily; it wouldn’t be such a fun and soothing watch otherwise — the ASK agents can’t fully escape capitalism’s cruelties. As much as Mathias insists that ASK is a family (formalized when one character literally gives birth in the reception area), he’s quick to abandon all his children (both biological and figurative) if given the right financial incentive.
But even if you’re working ridiculous hours for the sake of some higher calling, rather than just money or power — is it really worth it? Andréa, who truly loves and believes in the art of film, has to decide whether she should really be investing so much of herself in work over time with her family.
Even though I did have a bit of nostalgia while watching workplace dramas over the past year of being stuck inside, those warm feelings were ultimately dampened by the shows’ reminders of how punishing hustle culture can be. I want to be able to grab drinks with my best friends at work and bitch about the minutiae of office politics again. At the same time, I don’t want to return to long, punishing days sandwiched between long, punishing commutes; I don’t want my job to consume my identity. If there’s been any good to come out of this catastrophic pandemic, it has been, for me, being afforded the space and time to figure out who I am outside of my office walls. The characters of Industry and Call My Agent! are consumed by work, to the extent that it’s all they really have. I’ve had similar bouts in my professional life — and no matter how much I miss the office, I don’t ever want to go back to that. ●