BINGE-R #14: Underground + Call My Agent!
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
A 19th century drama set in America’s slavery-bound South just prior to the Civil War, Underground has a bristling, compelling momentum. As a story about escaping subjugation, it moves forward with a fierce desire, but it rarely fails to identify the nightmarish everyday reality of one human being owning another and how that would make someone risk everything to flee. Laced with horror and hope, Underground is searingly watchable. It’s the best show I’ve seen in the (brief) year to date.
Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, it’s a prison break thriller underpinned by historic relevance. On an Antebellum cotton plantation in Georgia, freedom is barely a fantasy for slaves born and raised into lifelong subjugation, but it’s all Noah (the fiercely compelling Aldis Hodge) can think of. To successfully make the 1,000 kilometre journey north he’ll need both accomplices and assets. The early episodes turn on the subterfuge of recruiting fellow slaves, including a maid repulsed by the owners she’s in close proximity to, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and procuring a gun and access to the Underground Railroad network that funnelled slaves to the free states.
The threat of death hangs over every step, while some slaves oppose the plan. “Lose yourself in the work,” Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine (Amirah Vann), tells her, having manipulated their owners to her tenuous gain. The plot eschews exposition for example: an early shot of a runaway slave captured by bounty hunters has him wearing a collar studded with bells so that he’s literally treated like an animal. The show exhumes both the psychological and economic self-interest of slavery – you see how the stratified, unequal white society is held together by having a black underclass to collectively exploit for profit and pleasure.
Another plot strand, about a privileged white couple (Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw) whose home becomes a way station on the Underground Railroad, is slower to develop, but later episodes should match the hopeful fugitives to the tenuous infrastructure. Not everyone will like the contemporary soundtrack – the very first scene is scored to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” – but the vivid cinematography adds to the show’s desperate energy. Twists come from unexpected liaisons and untrustworthy collaborators, such as a cunning slave risen to supervisor, Cato (Alano Miller), and hanging over everything is the racial politics of contemporary America. Underground is gripping, but never merely entertaining.
>> Bonus Binge: Netflix is streaming 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s unsparing drama about a free black man kidnapped into slavery that was the Best Picture winner at the 2013 Academy Awards.
CALL MY AGENT! S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
Don’t worry, Call My Agent! is not just a French take on Entourage. While this Parisian tale of movie star reps features frantic double dealing and famous actors playing themselves, it rarely takes pleasure in the venal and it’s short on strutting, self-important men. “I have convictions!” declares Amanda (Camille Cottin), one of four senior agents trying to save their agency, and that was never a line any of the Hollywood commission takers uttered on Entourage. Mostly through a skilful dedication each episode works itself out for the best.
The series has a jaunty pulse that results in slapstick moments and comic obfuscation, but there are also splashes of dramatic regret and tender contemplation. Amanda, who is a lesbian, and a colleague, Gabriel (Gregory Montel), repeatedly throw around the idea of having a baby together, and the agents equally consider themselves as family to their clients (or at least the successful ones). The namedropping is distinctly French – “lunch with Audiard and Arestrup,” an assistant is told – and celebrities are more than exaggerated cameos: the emotional focus of the first episode is Cecile De France pondering plastic surgery in order to get cast in a Quentin Tarantino film.
The jumps in tone can occasionally be jarring, but the drama and comedy generally balance each other out. It’s by no means a taxing show – and there are only six episodes – but it’s cleverly composed, complete with a newcomer on staff, Camille (Fanny Sidney), who learns the trade as we do while harbouring a secret link to one of her bosses. Netflix’s first French commission, the Gerard Depardieu political drama Marseille, was a clichéd mess, but Call My Agent! is an amusing and surprisingly sweet pick-up.
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