Not only is the “new recruit as audience surrogate” a time-tested method of spy agency stories, but it’s one of the simplest ways to get a literal foot in the door on a TV show. In the case of the French comedy “A Very Secret Service” (released in the United States as a Netflix Original), young counterintelligence newcomer André Merlaux (Hugo Becker) gets to be the doe-eyed conscience of a show where international diplomacy gets tossed around like manila folders full of classified material.
Andre joins the (fictional) French Secret Services in 1960, but the Cold War only permeates his new small inner circle of colleagues as much as it upsets the normal day-to-day business of a workplace that seems more banal than cutthroat. Writer/creators Jean-François Halin, Claire Lemaréchal, and Jean-André Yerlès manage to harness that droll side of a spy job for their benefit, using André’s growing list of lessons to paint a bizarre bureaucracy where global ramifications often come from a simple government form.
Despite its setting, “A Very Secret Service” still has a lot of the hallmarks of a workplace comedy. There are the interoffice romances, unusual personal secrets that slowly trickle out to the entire staff, and the love interest who ends up being far more than they seem. It does take a while for André’s colleagues to feel like distinct individuals, but when they do, Calot (Jean-Édouard Bodziak) emerges as the goofy paranoid second-guesser, Moulinier (Bruno Paviot) as the short-fused, aspirationally suave type, and Jacquard (Karim Barras) as the guy with some unconventional side ventures.
What could be a series of whirlwind missions abroad and domestic negotiations back in Paris end up being a chance for André’s bosses to diplomatically faceplant. Over time, “A Very Secret Service” sheds its Former French Colony of the Week approach to make it more about the weird internal office politics of the Service itself. As André moves through the ranks to higher and higher clearances, it becomes more and more incidental where he goes.
While “A Very Secret Service” doesn’t have the quick pace and formal curveballs that Michel Hazanavicius’ first “OSS 117” movie did, there still a similar undercutting of the time period’s prevailing social attitudes. Whenever delegations from former colonies arrive, it’s the Service staff members that end up as the ultimate butt of the joke. That they can’t imagine that a woman could join their ranks or that African nations could want to sustain democracy are ultimately to their own detriment.
As these agents take their various missions and discuss strategy for far-reaching locations around the world, the office itself — with a giant glass-windowed cage and giant Lite-Brite board of global political hotspots — may come across as playful and light. But the series slowly plants doubt in its characters’ minds as to whether or not what they’re doing has any value at all. At one point the Marseilles plays under a rousing speech, followed by a hard cut to a baked-goods symbol of historical obliviousness. The satire may not cut as sharply as an Iannucci joint, but there’s still some wit to be found amidst the goofiness.
Once the show deemphasizes the oversimplified missions, it leads to more interesting story avenues, but it also kind of loses its focus as a TV show itself. There still a fantastic running joke about André’s suit that also acts as a brilliant shortcut to understanding the tone and priorities of life at the Service. But even as André’s entry into this strange new job and way of life offers some breezy diversions, not every roadmap leads to a successful target.
When the show does shift its attention to the actual technique that spies use — not the fierce hand-to-hand combat, but specialized moves like a mid-seduction drink poisoning — there’s a certain level of absurdity to it that brings with it some genuinely funny moments. “A Very Secret Service” is a pretty well-calibrated balance between homage and parody. (The original opening credits is a “Bullitt”-infused sequence that treads that line especially well.) There’s a certain layer of understanding that comes from a close attention to things like tricolor-striped dossiers that pairs nicely with the dry ridiculousness of quibbling over mission expense reports. It might not be the tightly crafted thriller that some might anticipate, but once it figures out what it’s after, “A Very Secret Service” is worth some investigation.
“A Very Secret Service” is now available to stream on Netflix.