‘A Very Secret Service’ Is a Very French Spy Comedy
Ultra-dark, baffling, brilliant
This story originally appeared on Sept. 13, 2016.
Imagine if the French had made Get Smart and you’ll have some idea of the surreal brilliance of A Very Secret Service. In Mel Brook’s American classic, super-agent Maxwell Smart bumbles his way through his fight against the agents of KAOS.
Only the cunning of his sidekick, Agent 99, and his bevy of sweet gadgets keep Smart from dying on a weekly basis. He’s incompetent yet succeeds because he’s the good guy and has, ahem, smart colleagues.
In A Very Secret Service, hapless rookie agent André Merlaux is himself the smartest man in the room, but he can’t catch a break for a litany of surreal and often petty reasons.
Watch this show. It’s something else.
During his first day on the job, Merlaux’s phone rings and he picks it up. His boss calls him up to the head office to discuss it.
“What made you answer the phone?” asks Moïse, Merlaux’s deadpan and intimidating supervisor.
“Well, the phone was ringing and … I picked it up,” Merlaux says.
“The logic escapes me,” Moïse responds. “I don’t get it.”
“The telephone,” Merlaux says. “I thought … ”
Moïse raises his eyebrows and Merlaux trails off.
“This isn’t a helpline, Merlaux,” the boss says. “Any misunderstandings could set off a world war. A world war! Do you hear me? Get out.”
Later, while on a assignment in Algeria, Merlaux successfully identifies and eliminates two members of the National Liberation Front. But when he returns home, Moïse tells him the missions was a failure because he didn’t fill out the proper paperwork and thus put the nation of France in jeopardy.
When representatives of an African colony show up demanding independence, Merlaux does his best to help, only to have his colleagues destroy his good work by assassinating all the Africans. The CIA comes calling. Merlaux is the only one who can speak English and his fellow agents mock him for it.
So it goes the life of the only competent, forward-thinking agent of A Very Secret Service. It’s 1960 in Paris and the world is changing. Women are modern, the French New Wave is changing the way the world thinks of movies and France’s empire is slipping through its fingers.
It’s up the Service to fix the problems it can and ignore the problems it can’t.
Netflix brought A Very Secret Service to the wider world in the summer of 2016. It mostly flew under the radar — and not for no reason. A Very Secret Service is … weird.
Sometimes it’s a comedy and sometimes it’s a drama, but believe me — it’s always enjoyable. Merlaux is the young guy just trying to make his way in the world. He and the younger generation represent the future, a new and enlightened France.
The rest of the service counterbalances Merlaux. They’re the old guard, the men and women who fought fascism during World War II. They think of France as an empire and a great power yet don’t realize that, in 1960, that’s all slipping away.
Agent Moulinier tends to Africa … but he can’t keep colonies from declaring independence. Agent Calot moves through the Eastern Bloc, unsure of who is ally and who is an enemy. Agent Jacquard watches over Algeria. It’s a province of France, he insists, but he spends more time running businesses overseas than he does focusing on the FLN threat and the plight of the Algerian people.
The show is dark, hilarious, abrasive and strange. I’m certain I missed jokes because I don’t speak French and the more knowledge the viewer has of Cold War French history, the better the jokes land.
In VG 42, the show’s seventh episode, Jacquard, Calot and Moulinier threaten to strike when they learn the Service won’t be paying them a VG 42 bonus that year. The Service has good reason — the bonus is a redundant hold-over from Vichy France that the Agents have exploited for extra francs for the past decade.
The 30 minutes of comedy that follow the setup require the audience to possess at least a rough understanding of Charles de Gaulle-era reforms, Vichy bureaucracy and 1960s European labor unions. I know on the surface that sounds dry and boring, but A Very Secret Service manages to make the situation hilarious.
A Very Secret Service is a hard show to describe because I’ve never seen anything so wholly original or bizarre. It is as if David Lynch directed a season of Mad Men with Don Draper and company as spies.
During the interview process in the show’s first scene, the mysterious director peppers Merlaux with questions. “Where is the home of human rights?” he asks.
“France?” Merlaux answers as a scream echoes from a distant room.
The Service’s seal is a giant gamecock with the proverb “Wherever Necessity Knows No Law” encircling the golden metal rooster.
When the agents capture a West German spy — yes, West German — they’re stunned to learn they’re in trouble. “The Germans are friends now. It came via telex, very high up,” the director explains.
When a man confesses to crimes under torture, the Service has to toss out his written testimonial. “Extracted confessions are not legitimate,” the director explains. “Except, of course, in Algeria.”
“Of course,” the agent agrees.
The jokes build on each other over the course of the series’ 12 episodes, reaching a bloody crescendo of humor and morbidity in the show’s final act that’s unlike anything I’ve seen on T.V. from any country.
Watch the show. It’s incredible. And remember, Africa is Africa but Algeria … Algeria is France.