Wednesday 16 January 2019

Never mind superheroes, check out this hidden gem from Netflix

Under the radar: The French comedy Call My Agent!
Under the radar: The French comedy Call My Agent!

John Boland

Netflix constantly bombards me with emails about comedies and dramas that I "might like" and that I frequently don't, yet it neglects to mention others that it slips unheralded into its programming and that turn out to be winners.

This week, for instance, I felt duty-bound to watch the streaming service's much-hyped new superhero series, Black Lightning, whose first episode I thought very lame, and it was only when alerted by a friend that I came across Call My Agent!, which proved to be a delight.

This French comedy-drama, two seasons of which are available on Netflix, concerns the travails of a Parisian film agency as it seeks to recover from the sudden death of its much-loved founder. That, though, is just the backdrop as we encounter the four surviving partners, as much at war with themselves as with their rivals in other agencies.

We also encounter the movie stars on whose behalf they're working and these are real stars playing themselves, or at least heightened versions of themselves. And so you have Nathalie Baye and her actress daughter Laura Smet being cast together in a movie against each other's will, you have Cécile de France as Cécile de France, François Hollande's lover Julie Gayet as herself, and Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Adjani doing likewise.

This usage of real celebrities could have been a bit of a gimmick, as it was in Ricky Gervais's Extras, but here they're given substantial roles, and it's both intriguing and amusing to watch them playing around with public perceptions of themselves.

It helps that the storylines are engrossing, that the scripts are witty and that the four central characters are so sharply defined and well played that you're eager to spend time in their company as they try to keep their pampered celebs, if not content, at least on their books.

Under the title 'Dix Pour Cent' (the cut that agents get), this series has been a success in France, and if Netflix bothered to give it any publicity, the same would be true internationally. Instead we're being persuaded to watch Black Lightning, in which Cress Williams plays a noble school principal who, faced with urban corruption and criminality, feels obliged to resume the superhero mantle he'd left in the closet a decade earlier. However, as with Daredevil and his fists, his superhuman skills aren't very exciting, consisting mainly of the electric currents he shoots at the baddies while garbed in what looks like a scuba-diving suit. And the racial profiling - saintly black hero versus nasty white cops - is just as banal. Netflix has come up with a couple of arresting superhero shows, but Jessica Jones this isn't.

Still, it's not Striking Out (RTÉ1), which I'm watching with increasing stupefaction, none of its characters bearing the slightest resemblance to anyone who actually exists in the real world. There's the English barrister who somehow has been appointed chairman of an Irish tribunal into political and financial corruption. There's the dour young Dublin criminal who somehow is sharing the barrister's posh home and who, despite his criminal record, somehow works for main character Tara.

There's Tara herself, so clueless a solicitor you wouldn't entrust her with a parking fine appeal. There's Tara's female legal colleague who's so quirky that she's called George and who's such a maverick that she smokes non-stop in the office without anyone saying boo to her. There's treacherous private investigator Meg, who can conjure up incriminating CCTV footage as if by magic, and there's sinister legal boss Richard, so villainous he might as well be played by a cardboard cutout - and maybe better played, too.

Indeed, all these people are cut-and-paste inventions by filmmakers with no idea of how to make characters live and breathe or to behave in a way that makes any psychological or dramatic sense. Still, the series got a great puff on last week's Late Late Show and isn't that all that matters?

With Keelin Shanley now bringing authority to the Six-One News and Sharon Ní Bheoláin moving to the 9pm bulletin, the latter has also taken over the former's presenting role on Crimecall (RTÉ1). She handled this week's first outing very smoothly.

Belfast painter Gareth Reid won the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year award in 2017 and his commissioned painting of Graham Norton can be seen in the National Gallery of Ireland among other fine Irish portraits.

As it happens, this country has been doing well in this competition, and on Tuesday night's edition of Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 (Sky Arts), Dubliner Bríd Higgins Ní Chinnéide won through to the later stages with her arresting study of actress Vicky McClure.

The semi-finals will be screened on March 13, when she'll be joined by two other Irish contenders, teenager Hetty Lawlor from Westport and Leanne Mullen from Dundalk. These are notable achievements, and this Sky Arts series is notable in itself for its commitment to painting. Indeed, it's easily the best of such shows and is amiably presented by Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner.

Seth MacFarlane is the wicked genius behind Family Guy, episodes of which can be watched nightly on Fox, so I expected more raucous fun from The Orville (also Fox), a new live-action series that he has based on Star Trek and that seemed likely to be crammed with piss-taking gags. But no, this is a slavish homage to Star Trek made by a devoted fan and almost entirely free of any laughs. Stretched out to hour-long episodes, it's dismayingly limp.

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