I thought I was going to be able to flee our current woes with the new BBC America series “Killing Eve.” But it turns out that a show about a cold-hearted killer isn’t much of an escape in an age when “Dr. Strangelove” feels more like a documentary than a Cold War satire. Luckily, help was at hand with a wonderful French comedy-drama on Netflix, “Call My Agent!,” which is perhaps the most purely enjoyable show I’ve seen all year.
I had high hopes for “Killing Eve” (which is based on a little-known novella by British writer Luke Jennings called “Codename Villanelle”), tempered by one lingering doubt. While that initial fear was overcome, the show’s fundamental premise has left me feeling lukewarm about it. (That may not be a common response, though: BBC America has already ordered a second season of the eight-part series.)
On the plus side, it’s written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge – the woman behind the funniest, saddest, smartest show of 2016, “Fleabag,” which proved a rare hit for Amazon. Also, it stars the young British actor Jodie Comer, who delivered a stunning performance in the powerful BBC abduction drama “Thirteen” (also in 2016).
My nagging doubt concerned the casting of Sandra Oh, an actor whose Dr. Cristina Yang character spent 10 years annoying me on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Indeed, I’ve long been convinced her full name is actually Sandra Ohgodpleaseno.
She plays MI5 desk monkey Eve Polastri, even though the character in the original novella is 29 and English – in other words, an ideal character for Waller-Bridge herself to play. (Anyone wanting proof of Waller-Bridge’s comedy chops should check out the second season of “Broadchurch,” in which she commits the show’s biggest crime with her scene-stealing performance.) I can only assume Oh was cast for reasons related to BBC America wanting a household face for their black comedy-thriller.
In fairness to Oh, she does the comedy shtick well here and “Killing Eve” is at its best in the scenes when Eve is interacting at the British spy agency with her assistant – the very funny Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who gets lines like “I went for a run this morning and then I ate some coal. Apparently it’s a thing” – and her boss, Bill (the wonderfully lugubrious David Haig). There’s a hilarious scene involving a croissant, and for me the show is at its best when it’s basically an office comedy.
My main problem is the show’s antagonist: a drop-dead-gorgeous killing machine called Villanelle (Comer, in a not wholly convincing French accent – although it should become apparent why that’s the case as the season develops).
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In the original novella, her handler explains to her: “The world has a problem with people like you. Men or women who are born, as you were, without a conscience, or the ability to feel guilt,” he says. “Without predators, people who can think the unthinkable, and act without fear or hesitation, the world stands still. You are an evolutionary necessity.”
While that may work on the page, on screen it translates into a fairly dull sociopath who, much like Bud Cort’s character in “Harold and Maude,” likes to amuse herself by playing dead when her handler, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia from “The Bridge”), visits her Paris apartment.
It’s yet another representation of the quirky assassin, one we’ve seen many times before – in the likes of “Pulp Fiction,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “The Matador” and pretty much every Coen Brothers movie ever made. How quirky? Well, immediately prior to murdering someone, Villanelle makes a point of finding out from them the name of the designer of a beautiful throw they have on their bed.
The show develops into a cat-and-mouse chase between Eve and Villanelle across various European cities, including Berlin. Eve may become increasingly obsessed by the devastatingly efficient Villanelle, but I was far less so. I wanted more croissant gags, less killings.
I’ll persist with “Killing Eve” but pin my real hopes on the return next year of Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag character and her hamster-themed, overpriced London café (and also another show she’s developing for HBO – a romantic comedy-thriller called “Run”).
The highlight of my TV week was found in a different kind of agency: a talent agency, in the French series “Call My Agent!” (called “Ten Percent” in France). Two seasons of the show are currently available on Netflix (six episodes per season), and it’s a 100 percent delight.
It focuses on a struggling actors’ agency in Paris, with each episode revolving around a real-life French actor – starting with the likes of Cécile de France and Nathalie Baye, and, in the second season, breaking out the big guns with Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche – and a crisis that will make or break the company.
We’ve always known actors are a superstitious, insecure lot, but “Call My Agent!” suggests that’s nothing compared to the neuroses of their “tenpercenters” – just witness the panic when an agent realizes her rookie assistant has sent a veteran client a green shawl (French actors regard the color green as bad luck, apparently, since it’s the color the playwright Molière was wearing when he died).
The plots may be pretty standard fare, but the characters are anything but. There’s the likeable loser Gabriel (Grégory Montel), forever on the verge of losing key clients, and his gay but straight-talking assistant Hervé (Nicolas Maury); womanizing lesbian Andréa (Camille Cottin), feverishly assembling the perfect indie film cast, and her new assistant, Camille (the engaging Fanny Sidney), who has a secret connection to the agency’s main agent, Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert). He handles the agency’s biggest clients and is the group’s slickest, smarmiest operator.
There are great characters everywhere, though, including Arlette (Liliane Rovère), the oldest agent in Paris (“She represented the dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic Park,’” deadpans Hervé) and her ever-present terrier, Jean Gabin. If you know Gabin was one of the main players in 20th-century French cinema, you’ll find countless such laughs here. But even if you think Jean Gabin is a provocative designer, there’s still much to enjoy.
I guess you could call it the French “Extras.” But whereas the Ricky Gervais sitcom was taking potshots at the acting profession and reveled in upending viewers’ expectations of D-list British celebrities, “Call My Agent!” is a far warmer exploration of a group of endearing characters you’ll love hanging out with.
My only quibble is with the streaming service itself, which in its “This show is” category, labels the show as “Cynical.” Au contraire, Netflix, au contraire.