A caveat, first of all: I’ve not seen the original French version, Dix pour cent (or, as it’s known on Netflix UK, Call My Agent!). I don’t know how well Ten Percent – Amazon Prime’s English-language remake, set in London rather than Paris, and in development since before Call My Agent became a lockdown hit – compares to its inspiration, whether something is lost in translation or if, perhaps, one even improves on the other. I should watch it, I know, I will at some point, but for the moment I’m still yet to get around to it.
Like its French predecessor, Ten Percent is set in an actors’ talent agency, rocked by the sudden death of its founder and senior partner. It becomes clear that the firm is in much worse financial shape than they’d realised, complicating the launch of their new production wing and bringing the looming spectre of an American buyout; in amongst this, the agents have to navigate the egos of and solve problems for their various clients, in each case real actors playing themselves. That conceit – reminiscent in some ways of Episodes or Extras – is essentially meant to be the central draw of Ten Percent, the quirk that sets it apart from any given film industry workplace comedy-drama.
Something else I should make clear, before I go on: I really enjoyed Ten Percent, and I had a lot of fun watching it. I think the cast are great (Hiftu Quasem is a particular highlight), I think it gets a lot of good material out of the workplace comedy-drama setup, and I genuinely would recommend it. But that’s counterbalanced by the fact it’s unfortunately not a show that puts its best foot forward, and the fact that the central draw of the show – the celebrity guest appearances that are, I assume, the key reason why most will tune in to the series – are probably its weakest aspect.
The underlying problem, which manifests in different ways, is that the show is too… nice, almost, too straightforward in its depiction of the celebrities. Kelly Macdonald plays a version of herself who’s polite and likeable in the first and unfortunately weakest episode; Helena Bonham Carter plays a version of herself who’s friendly and loyal; Phoebe Dynevor plays a version of herself who’s pleasant and amicable. Compared to something like Episodes – where Matt LeBlanc committed entirely to playing a selfish, arrogant, debauched version of himself – and Ten Percent’s shortcomings are quickly apparent.
Some of them work, or at least come closer to doing so. Dominic West portrays himself as neurotic and anxious, mid-crisis at the thought of playing a selfie-taking Hamlet; David Oyelowo, across from his real-life partner Jessica, is a Wife Guy forced to lie. Those, in each case, have a bit more complexity and substance to them, and there’s more humour within that as a result – I’ve no reason not to think Kelly Macdonald is polite and likeable in real life, but a show like this needs to lean into more exaggerated comic caricatures to be the funniest version of itself. The show doesn’t need to be cruel or coarse – tonally, it works as it is – but it does need to be heightened, treating the celebrities with an absurdist brush if not a harsh one.
But again, when it works, I think it really works. After a few episodes, Ten Percent settles into itself much more comfortably – a result of developing its own momentum, throwing the characters into their own ongoing plotlines beyond the guest star of the week, meaning the guest appearances feel more like a light distraction than a yawning abyss – and becomes a much more engaging, much more entertaining watch. As a satire of the film industry, it’s fine; as a workplace drama (which is what it really is, moreso than a comedy), it’s a surprisingly heartfelt, deeply watchable piece of television.
As I’ve said, Ten Percent has a great cast: I was already fond of Prasanna Puwanarajah (Defending the Guilty is still much missed), and it makes for a great introduction to Hiftu Quasem and Harry Trevaldwyn (both absolutely brilliant). Tim McInnerny, meanwhile, is in some ways the heart of the show as washed-up actor Simon Gould, an alcoholic who’s never quite managed to hold a job and is on the verge of being dropped by the agency, but is always (consistently, unfailingly, surprisingly) kind to the agents, never once self-serving even when it’d benefit him most.
In a second series – and I genuinely do hope they make one – the issues would be easy enough to solve. Either find celebrities who are more game to indulge in self-parody, or find a way to be hyperspecific within that; the jokes about David Tennant in Gracepoint, surely no one’s first point of reference for him, feel like indicators of a potential way forward. Alternately, maybe the celebrities should be substituted for fictionalised alternatives – Ted Lasso’s Phil Dunster appears not as himself but as an arrogant soap star, and that works much better than Phoebe Dynevor’s guest spot.
For the moment, though, it feels worth taking a chance on Ten Percent – not for the celebrity sheen it’s been sold with, but for the character dynamics that make the show really sing.
Ten Percent will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from Thursday 28 April, with all eight episodes available at once. I’ve seen the full series before writing this review.
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