Watching the television series Call My Agent makes me wonder whether there is some French term for the feeling of squirming with embarrassed yet surprised amusement. Call My Agent, which was originally titled Dix pour cent or “Ten Percent” to denote the typical cut that an agent takes from an actor’s purse, first appeared on France 2 in 2015 and is now on Netflix. The show certainly provides this discrepant feeling in every episode (plus an overarching thematic concern regarding whether the fictional ASK talent agency will survive). But it’s simultaneously more than a fascinating dramedy. Watching it during the last four months under the exile from social life of the pandemic, when my relationships with my colleagues were some of the most meaningful in my life, gave me insight into how to be a professional in a role in which I am handling other professionals. There are key differences though. In Call My Agent the action is so fraught, the stakes so heightened that I can’t realistically draw parallels between the responsibilities of the ASK agents and what I deal with as an editor at Hyperallergic, but there are echoes. It’s their handling of other people while dealing with their own crises that speaks to me.
These past 18 months, like most people I know, I’ve ricocheted between activities engaged in to feel human again. I’ve done Zoom parties, I’ve taken an online class (sort of), I’ve run miles in a nearby park, I’ve engaged in marathon rounds of online shopping, and I’ve slept like there was no tomorrow. In all this, one of the television series that caught and held my attention, and thus earned my love, is Call My Agent. The main characters — Andréa Martel, Mathias Barneville, Gabriel Sarda, and Arlette Azémar — are all partners in the A-list actor talent firm ASK (in the original French: Agence Samuel Kerr). Indeed part of the sexy frisson of the show is the guest appearances by monumental stars like Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jean Reno, and Sigourney Weaver. The agents are mostly (except for Azémar) one hot mess moved from one stove burner to another over the course of four seasons. There are secret affairs and the children born of them that come to figure prominently in their parents’ lives, hostile corporate takeovers, highly inappropriate professional relationships, and betrayals and twists of fate that keep me riveted. All the main characters have considerable limitations — Martel is a serial womanizer; Barneville is fundamentally dishonest with everyone, including himself; and Sarda acts childishly in the face of uncomfortable situations — yet they manage, by the skin of their teeth, to put their clients first.
I recall a storyline from season one in which Martel, while dealing with the fallout from ruining the seduction attempt of a government tax auditor examining the firm’s finances, rushes to set to deal with an emergency. The problem is actor François Berléand’s bewildering refusal to follow the directions of a young, smoking hot director who is giving him a role in a new movie, essentially a chance to be relevant to a younger generation. She puts her distress and confusion at her own self-destructive behavior to the side to find out, through caring and persistent questioning, why Berléand is behaving in a similarly self-destructive way. After some investigation, she finds out that it’s a deep-seated fear that he didn’t want to share that is holding him back. She eventually gets him to talk with the director about this fear and resolve the issue so they can move ahead with working together on the film.
As an editor (spoiler alert), I’ve not had to deal with situations quite so dramatic. Most of the time, the hand holding that I do is subtle and via email, telling someone that their ideas are worthwhile, insightful, and useful. Every time I say this I mean it, but I’m also saying it to get the piece in and a deadline met. Every now and again it happens that I speak to a writer who is going through a crisis and needs to be talked out of the foxhole. Once I had a conversation with a writer who was afraid that her critique of a particular local artist would get her in steaming hot water with the local community and wanted to pull the piece. I told her honestly that her ideas had merit and what she was saying needed to be said. We published that piece. The artist appeared to have resented it, but it was a truthful and discerning look at her work and rhetoric, and it helped to keep all of us in the art scene honest.
Sometimes I tell writers that I think the piece might work better this way, with them cutting the part that they probably spent hours to formulate just so, or I tell them that the piece isn’t working yet, that they will need to go back and do a significant rewrite. I know this means lost family time, or lost sleep, and another cup of strong coffee, or a jigger of bourbon in an old fashioned glass kept by the computer. These edits can also mean wearing away the sometimes thin skin of the writer’s ego. I’ve found myself telling someone when I’ve had to kill their piece that I’ve gone through the same thing. I have. I think it helps that I am telling the truth and I imagine that somehow that truth can be heard in my voice, or is perhaps legible in lines of Georgia normal-size text.
The other thing that Call my Agent does is remind me that all these professional activities — the emails, phone calls, negotiations, compliments, warnings, acknowledgments, appreciations, and rejections — are all about nurturing relationships. At the core of these activities has to be care for the other person, a desire to see them thrive. Relationships are at the heart of what I do as an editor. I take care of people’s ideas and make sure that what I think is the best version of them gets to a wider audience. I am holding hands with my writers and asking them to trust that I can see from my vantage point what may not be immediately apparent to them.
On the other hand, sometimes the relationships need to end for one to continue to grow, or to grow differently, or to simply stop bad behavior. Towards the end of season four several of the agency’s most famous stars leave ASK because they find out that their agents were not honest with them and spoke about them disparagingly behind their backs. Similarly, I’ve had to walk away from working with certain writers who are brutally difficult to edit, undependable, or bad at communicating. Perhaps the real test of being a professional, in any industry or occupation, is being able to tell when a relationship just needs more cultivation and when it needs to end.