Sunday, July 17, 2016

French Roast: Netflix's A Very Secret Service

Hugo Becker and Mathilde Warnier in A Very Secret Service, currently streaming on Netflix.

Netflix's maturation as a television provider has been meteoric, but the road it's taken has in general been familiar: the same trajectory – albeit under a very different production model – has been travelled by AMC, and HBO before that. But the most exciting features of that journey has been growth in genuinely new directions, largely unexplored by traditional network and cable channels – features that emerge from Netflix's still unique global reach. Even as Hulu and Amazon give Netflix a run for its money in the U.S,, both services remain unavailable beyond American borders where their original shows still find themselves circulating under traditional distribution deals. In Canada, we have seen the recent broadcast premiere of Amazon's Bosch on CTV, and other Hulu and Amazon originals have been licensed to Canadian streaming services like shomi and CraveTV. Netflix, along with Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, has opened a door to a world of international television with already established audiences in the home country – mainly British, but also (among others) Spanish, Italian, French, Scandinavian , South American, Israeli, and a surprising number of South Korean shows – a televisual archive that sometimes spans decades. This newly legal and one-click access to well-subtitled original language productions is certainly unprecedented for North American and global subscribers, but over the past several months, Netflix has been quietly setting the stage for something else entirely: global premieres of new, non-English language series.

Since last summer, Netflix has premiered new, first-run shows from Japan (Hibana), Mexico (Club de Cuervos), and this May, its first French series (Marseilles, a raw but compelling drama starring Gérard Depardieu as an embattled mayor of Marseilles). It has also been securing the worldwide exclusive distribution rights for a number of foreign series, also marketed under its "Netflix Original" brand – on July 1st, the French-language A Very Secret Service, which premiered on ARTE France as Au service de la France last fall, joined the growing list of shows.

Set in Paris in 1960, A Very Secret Service is an intelligent and beautifully produced blend of spy satire and dry office comedy. The series also comes with all the insight of the strongest period dramas. Despite Service's unapologetic absurdism, I was reminded often of (the early seasons of) Mad Men and BBC's The Hour, not only because the three shows take place during roughly the same decade – albeit in different countries – but because all three are at their best when they combine coy historical hindsight with low-key, 'the past is a foreign country' sensitivity. Set mainly in the offices of a fictional version of France's national spy agency, Service paints a broad but richly detailed portrait of early Fifth Republic France, as the French state re-emerges as a world power at the height of the Cold War, struggles with the on-going Algerian War of Independence, slips as a colonial force (especially in North and West Africa), and negotiates the still potent repercussions of Nazi occupation and Vichy collaboration. The series made me consider the epic heights the Pink Panther films could have attained had they had even the smallest, non-cartoonish sense of French culture and history.

At the centre of the series is Hugo Becker as the young, spy-in-training André Merlaux. (American audiences may be familiar with Becker from his role as the Monegasque heir apparent in late seasons of Gossip Girl.) Though the eyes of the 23-year-old André, we get to experience not only the growing – and shrinking – pains of the French state, but also New Wave film, Beat Era youth culture, shifting gender roles with the rise of feminism, and a new frankness about sex. Becker portrays Merlaux with a mesmerizing mixture of boyishness and heartfelt patriotism, a clumsy but genuine aptitude, and sometimes slapstick innocence: like a francophone Maxwell Smart, though without Agent 86's preternatural confidence, played by a younger version of Adam Scott (to whom Becker bears an sometimes uncanny resemblance).

The world Merlaux is thrown into is populated by gleeful bureaucrats, Cold War true believers, and sexy femmes fatales. It is also a culture that judges newcomers more by grammar and fashion than hard work or competence. A joke about the cut of the suit Merlaux regrettably shows up in on his first day runs through the entire first season, as does the fact that regardless of whatever global disaster threatens, the French workday ends strictly – lights off, doors locked – at 5pm, except on Friday, of course, when the drink cart and the champagne flutes come out. For one episode, more than half to its screen-time is devoted the labyrinthine bureaucracy of forms, signatures, stamps, double-stamps, and counter-stamps required to do just about anything in the agency – from buying a gift for one of the young secretaries to sending an agent on an assassination assignment to Algeria. In that context, Merlaux's youthful enthusiasm and actual competence is viewed with alternating confusion, amusement, and outright disdain. (It is also no small point that Merlaux's talents include a particular and unselfconscious facility for killing.)

One advantage Service has over many other period shows is that, as a comedy, it can use its privileged hindsight to make certain characters exactly wrong, rather than the too-frequent period story narrative shortcut of making characters appear brilliant by anticipating future events – this is the device that Aaron Sorkin relied on almost exclusively in his lamentable The Newsroom. (As enjoyable as AMC's 80s period tech drama Halt and Catch Fire is, it used this trick distractingly often in its two seasons, with Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan anticipating everything from laptops, to LCD screens, to broadband in order to maintain his character's status as a "visionary".) In Service, however, this structure is used sparingly to highlight the general inability of Merlaux's superiors and colleagues to see even 24 hours in the future.

I have written here before on the pleasures of watching foreign-language television – specifically about Israel's Arab Labor, in 2011, and Italy's Inspector Montalbano, in 2014 – and, thanks largely to Netflix, these opportunities have become available to a still-growing number of English-speaking audiences. While dramas still predominate the field (e.g., Denmark's The Killing, the Sweden/Denmark co-production The Bridge and its U.K./French counterpart The Tunnel, and Germany's masterful Deutschland 83), comedies seem to have lagged behind. This is no surprise, because unlike drama – which can draw comfortably upon near-universal social situations – humour often leans heavily on the specific and particular. So much needs to be taken for granted, and so much needs to be communicated in an instant, for humour to genuinely translate – no matter what language is it spoken in. (This is also why humour in a foreign language is often the final frontier of genuine fluency – that moment when, over a few pints, you move from appreciating the humour to getting the joke.) And if you really want to immerse yourself neck deep in a new culture, foreign comedy is the way to go – and parody is an especially ideal form, as satire continually gestures to the unsaid, thereby painting a fuller picture often in brilliant relief. (In contrast to the norms of broad comedy which – like a football to the crotch – require no translation.)

Over the course of the first season's twelve episodes, A Very Secret Service demonstrates an abiding sense of history, along with a dark, absurdist flair. If there is any manifest nostalgia, it may well be a nostalgia for the innocent violence of another era, for the casual, unthinking confidence of a nation that believes that their future is bright and the worst is behind them. (It is worth noting that the last episode of the first season aired in France on November 12, the very eve of the November 13 terrorist attacks which tore through Paris in the fall.) But A Very Secret Service – populated by ridiculous figures who hold onto colonial prejudice and racism, out-of-date sexism, and a general inability to see what's right in front of their faces – also continually calls the very idea of nostalgia into question. In 1960, myths of the French Resistance predominate even as the real and horrifying events of the years of Nazi occupation (and the dark shadow of French collaboration) seem to fade further and further into the past, and yet in one way or another the lingering after-effects of WWII are present in almost all the characters – and to viewers, as well, as the season's plot develops. It is rare to see a comedy that remains funny – often even ridiculous – without completely sacrificing the weight of the real, but A Very Secret Service regularly does just that.

The first season of A Very Secret Service (Au service de la France) – in French, with English subtitles – is currently streaming on Netflix worldwide. A second season has already been confirmed.

 – Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.


  1. Starting watching it last night and found myself on the third episode almost without noticing. I think it's very well done. I agree that it feels a little like a Get Smart/Pink Panther incarnation but with a much more subtle, intelligent comedy. I love Netflix's foreign films and shows, both the British ones and the non-English speaking ones. I really enjoyed your comments because I find that very few people I know can understand the attraction.

  2. Found it to be excellent and amusing, laughing out loud in places, looking forward to the next season.

  3. Binged watched it this weekend, and loved it. Can't wait for season 2.

  4. I stumbled onto this series and was hooked, even addicted. One thing the writer didn't make note of are the plot twists and surprises that come along the way, leading to a surprising and suspenseful end to Season One. What is our protagonist going to be up to next season??? Season Two can't come quick enough.

  5. Love it! I hope there is a season 3.

  6. Season 2 is even better than season 1. My husband commented on the referendum question being a parody before we got to the punch line!!! Soooo good!!