John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: French 'spy comedy,' doc discussing race are must-watch

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The words "spy comedy" evoke something very specific, but this French period comedy delivers something deliciously outside of those restrictions. Taking place in the early 1960s and featuring an attention to period detail that rivals "Mad Men," "A Very Secret Service" follows the experience of Andre Merlaux (Hugo Becker) as he is by force enlisted into the French secret service and spends much of the series trying to figure out what in the world is going on as the incompetent and sometimes corrupt pencil pushers around him make the world safe for 20th-century colonialism.

Merlaux is taken under the hostile wings of the three main agents, whose guidance further reveal the corruption of the leading countries by interactions with their specialty areas — Africa, Algeria and behind the Iron Curtain. Karim Barras, Bruno Paviot and Jean-Edouard Bodziak are all impeccably hilarious as they pay more attention to their expense accounts than keeping the world safe, typically only raising a finger to make sure that Western imperialism keeps the status quo while allowing the victim countries to believe they are making some sort of progress.

The series also mixes in Merlaux's hapless love life, which runs afoul of his boss, The Colonel Maurice Mercaillon (Wilfred Bena che), and opens up doorways to hidden personal secrets, intrigue dating back to the Nazi occupation and some funny interpersonal mishaps.

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"A Very Secret Service" is one of those rare series that manages to do a lot with just a little time — not even a half-hour an episode and it still gets a fairly compelling, simple spy story unfolding, with great character comedy and some impeccable casting, but also the extra of smart satire and well-informed commentary on world politics since World War II. And while featuring a liberal view of all this, it features some boundary-testing sense of humor that adds appropriate darkness to the points it makes. In the Netflix realm, this is the very definition of a hidden gem.

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There are two ways to look at all those homemade videos online. One is that we are leaving an amazing record of our time, documenting down to the minutiae the thoughts of humans in the 21st Century about every aspect of our lives, and this will be invaluable to future historians. Another is that we're creating a load of nonsense that's just going to confuse future historians and make them wonder how we actually achieved any kind of future at all.

One thing's for certain — there's an awful lot of material available to be disseminated now by anyone wanting to investigate the human condition. That's what director Natalie Bookchin did following the election of Obama, compiling snippets of commentary video revolving around race from all vantage points. While she doesn't play up the exact focus of the rants in the documentary, some of them are obviously about Obama, while Tiger Woods, Henry Louis Gates, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson, but she puts them together in such a way that they create an extended group commentary about a meta-life of a symbolic Black American Everyman.

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Bookchin's particularly interested in finding the commonalities in the rants, regardless of what viewpoint the person takes, and she brings together a startling number of sentences that are not unique to the speaker, implying that we aren't very individualistic when we express our thoughts, regardless of whether our thoughts themselves stand apart from the crowd.

And while what Bookchin has crafted becomes a dialogue, it's apparent that the original forms of these recordings are anything but, and you have to wonder what makes a person sit in front of a webcam and not only record their thoughts about a celebrity's experience, but also shoot them out to the world. Until someone like Bookchin comes along to unite them, it all seems rather lonely, and a little bit futile, since the lack of diversity in actual points and the way the points are expressed leads me to believe that more people doesn't necessarily mean more solutions. We're talking about race and that's great — but what exactly are we saying?

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at


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