Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: An average joe, anonymous but tangentially involved in local politics, is thrust into the highest elected office of his country (by pure accident and some behind-the-scenes intervention), and though he is in way over his head at the beginning, his innate street-wisdom, clear-headed idealism, and honesty become his biggest strength, turning him into an actually good Head of State. Let’s call this trope the “Secret Political Mensch.” We have seen this setup in dramatic form (Designated Survivor), but mostly as comedies, like Chris Rock’s Head of State, Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year and in Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People, which will become The fetish subject for future Baudrillard doctoral students.
But this trope relies on an assumption that an average man, if decent and principled enough, will be able to revolutionize a stagnant and corrupt political system. Represent (En Place in French) takes the same trope and dares to ask “What if the decent average joe isn’t that much of a Political Mensch, he just hasn’t been corrupted yet?”
Rising French comedian Jean-Marie Zadi, who also co-created and co-wrote with FranÃ§ois Uzan, stars as Stéphane Blé, a Youth Counselor from the working-class and multi-ethnic suburb of Bobigny. He is charming, kind, and caring, but also rough around the edges and a born improviser, great things when becoming a role model for the disaffected youth of his banlieue (housing projects), a husband and father-to-be, but is it good enough to lead a country as… complex as France? Son to a single mother from CÃ´te D’Ivoire, he is proud of being French, carving a space for himself in a country that still can’t quite process that there are Black French people. He is thrown into viral fame when he publicly confronts Bobigny’s mayor, Ã‰ric Andréi (BenoÃ®t Poelvoorde), the leading presidential candidate. Andréi is the archetypal establishment Social-Democrat in today’s Left: Coasting by on progressive credentials, while clinging to power, engaging in corruption and allowing for budget cuts in everything a Leftist should hold dearest, like local Youth Centers for example.
Stéphane is approached by William Crozon (Ã‰ric Judor), a professional shady campaign manager, who convinces him to throw his hat into the presidential election. It is revealed shortly after that Crozon is working for the “establishment” right-wing candidate, with Blé being used to siphon votes away from Andréi. Nevertheless, Stéphane Blé’s campaign, despite being a shitshow from the very start, manages to fail upwards on Blé’s charisma and brutal honesty alone, even among small-town French people (for those wondering, small-town France is just as backwards and racist as small-town USA, but Catholic and with places you’d actually want to visit). In the process, he clashes with his drug-dealing cousin Désiré (Fary), fails to protect his nephew Lamine (Saabo Balde), and his marriage to Marion (Fadily Camara) becomes strained. A series of hilarious coincidences propel him into the second round (as shown in the opening scene) against Corinne Douanier (Marina FoÃ¯s), an ecofeminist candidate.
Represent is already a great takedown of the current state of French politics, but it truly succeeds in addressing a more universal theme: What does it mean to be a Leftist in this day and age, far from “Capitalism is the Endgame” of the ’90s but with our vision wholly dissolved? Blé considers himself a Leftist, and he embodies that in his work and communal action. But like many working-class men, of immigrant descent or otherwise, he’s far from enlightened: He supports Queer people, but will stumble at understanding things like pronouns and gender constructs. He values Yasmine (Souad Arsane), a brilliant and idealistic campaign director, but still says all the wrong things about her use of the hijab. Or will say “the Chinese” when referring to East Asians. And maybe South-East Asians too. He is a problematic man, with a lot to learn, though he does make an effort. Being a Leftist today sometimes feels like being in a constant Doctoral program in unlearning and deconstructing assumptions, while enjoying just a few marginal victories. But what about what we can offer? This is what actually puzzles Blé when coming up with his manifesto. What happens when you’re a Leftist at heart because you live it as a working-class, Black person, but the current political system only allows Leftism in the form of corrupt, petit-bourgeois dilettantes like AndrÃ¨i or hyper-qualified but out of touch like Douanier? Those are the only options against neoliberal hacks or racist psychos that want to deport all Arabs.
Blé comes up with a simple, apparently naÃ¯ve, but actually on-point proposal: Free healthy food for all. The kind of idealistic but sound idea that we Leftists should actually be open to debate.
Represent aims higher than satirizing politics for the sake of it. Jean-Pascal Zadi is brilliant at going from deadpan to hysterics to earnest moments, supported by an ensemble that expertly matches his energy and timing. The season finale sets up a sequel, which better happen. One thing is clear, with some exceptions, Netflix’s French-language content still makes 25% of the monthly fee worth it.
Alberto Cox is currently considering running for councilman, if and only if the contents of his Google searches are not leaked. No, it’s not the p*rn that he’s nervous about.