With 'The Office' being the quarantine binge of choice for many, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we've exhausted the possibilities of the workplace comedy. But, as is so often the case, they do things a little differently on the continent, Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Addie Crosby finds in a survey of acclaimed European series.
For one who has, from an admitted place of privilege, long regarded the theoretical monotony of unfulfilling office jobs as a subgenre of horror, I have of late derived far too much enjoyment from workplace dramedies. I speak of two in particular: Call My Agent (originally Dix Pour Cent) and Love and Anarchy.
It would, I think, be natural to assume that most well-adjusted people prefer to spend their leisure time consuming media which does not reflect the unpleasant practicalities, obligations, and encounters of life in their leisure time. So, what could it possibly say about us that the converse is also true? Are we to accept the death of the imagination? Is the future of popular culture predicated on masochistic humour and a preoccupation with the mundane?
While there’s a certain inexplicable thrill that comes from watching successful professional adults – fictional ones that is – make terrible choices, another more convincing possibility is that these shows are appealing because they are, in fact, nothing like the reality of most of our day to day lives. Baiting the viewer with a touch of relatability (temperamental bosses, long hours) these series are markedly glamorous in style and lavish in their presentation of wealth. They are also a far cry from British and American office comedies like The Office(s), a phenomenon which, had that particular dead horse not already been thoroughly flogged, I might endeavor to unpack. Call My Agent and Love and Anarchy are, respectively, set in a Parisian talent agency and a Stockholm publishing house. Characters dress impeccably, have complicated and illicit entanglements with their coworkers and clients, and frequent grand parties.
In each episode of Call My Agent, which has just released its fourth and final season, a well-known French actor guest stars as a version of themself, with appearances from some of the most eminent personages in French cinema; this last season features the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg and José Garcia. The self-satirising whims of these cameo actors and the chaos they inspire (resulting predicaments solved, of course, by their agents) is at the heart of what makes the show compelling. Showcased are careers characterised by variety and unpredictability, and all four seasons are as delightfully hilarious as they are moving and manic.
As both shows deal with the practical, managerial side of creative industries, similarities abound: the creation of Love and Anarchy is likely a testament to the success of its predecessor, Call My Agent, from which it undoubtedly draws. The eight-episode first season was released in 2020, and follows Sophie, who joins a prominent publishing house as a consultant, set against the backdrop of a difficult relationship with her husband, their children, and her father’s struggle with mental illness. Over the course of the show, Sophie develops a relationship with Max, a young intern at the company, through a perverse set of challenges they invent for each other. In many ways, both Max and her “radical” socialist father represent liberation from the constraints of the ideal life she has built, and an antidote to her disillusionment.
A necessary comparison is to be made between these series and the similarly popular category of school-based movies and TV. We can identify with the pivotal moments central to coming of age stories, but such tales are infused with enough intrigue and melodrama to make reliving the uncomfortable parts of adolescence worthwhile. Are we simply dealing with the grown-up version of the same genre? Perhaps.
To the imagined viewer, the microcosm of both programs is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, the very combination that lends itself so well to enabling escapism. Reality is dynamic and the unique careers depicted are often as unpredictable and exciting as the personal storylines which develop with them. Of course, it’s pessimistic and unfair of me to suggest that the general populace unanimously hate their jobs (a generalisation I happily know to be false) and that these programs are appealing only in the contrast that they provide to viewer reality. However, it is the romanticisation, if not the eroticisation, of work which subverts expectations, providing the element of fantasy viewers crave, and with it, the possibility of escape from the menial and every day. Rather than putting the fantastical and the quotidian at opposite ends of the narrative spectrum, it seems more pertinent to be aware of an immense potential for overlap, and the appeal of fiction that seems, at times, almost within reach.