There are moments during Huge in France when you can perceive what the show might have been—a semi-satirical, semi-screwball comedy about the acute insanity of modern-day fame. The new eight-part Netflix series exists in a meta universe similar to HBO’s Entourage, in that it’s loosely based on the real experiences of an actor and comedian, Gad Elmaleh. The plight of the show’s Gad (he refers to himself in the third person, alors, c’est vraiment Gad) is that he’s a huge star. In France. In real life, this is also true for Elmaleh, who by most metrics is a bona fide celebrity: He has 1.8 million Instagram followers, he once sold out Paris’s Olympia theater for a record-breaking seven consecutive weeks, and his former partner is the granddaughter of Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Grace Kelly. In France, Elmaleh is Jerry Seinfeld. In America, though? If a celebrity lands in a city where no one has ever heard of him, does he make a sound?
These are the kinds of existential questions Huge in France is positioned to consider. In the show’s lightly fictionalized universe, the world-weary Gad is getting tired of constant adulation and anonymous sex with beautiful young women. His ennui crests during a montage in the first episode as a mournful Gad comes offstage to the screams of thousands of fans, plays piano in his dressing room, wanders disconsolately down the street while being pestered for selfies. “But what’s it for?” he asks his manager. When he gets a phone call from his ex-partner, Vivian (Erinn Hayes), asking him to sign over parental guardianship to his Los Angeles–based son, Luke (Jordan Ver Hoeve), Gad sees an opportunity: He’ll leave Paris, fly to L.A., reconnect with his child, and rediscover his raison d’être.
It’s at this point that Huge in France cleaves itself right down the middle and becomes two very distinct shows. In one, Gad navigates his way through life in the epicenter of the Western entertainment industry, adjusting to his new state of total anonymity and shrugging at the absurdities of gym culture, chili dogs, and Tyson Beckford underwear signings. Even at his most depressed, Gad has an unpredictable magnetism, seeming as out of place and vulnerable in his new landscape as a jambon beurre in a vegan juicery. Sighing and shuffling like a Gallic Droopy, he tries his best to acclimate and to bond with Luke, a 15-year-old aspiring model who wants nothing to do with him.
In the other show, Luke’s stepfather, Jason (Matthew Del Negro) attempts to revive his acting career while shepherding the teenager’s modeling hopes. The two strands of the series are so tonally different and so strangely incompatible that it feels as if the series’s creators—Elmaleh, Andrew Mogel, and Jarrad Paul—spliced two preexisting concepts together and hoped for the best. Jason’s story line is an absurdist, infantile comedy about show business, one that features a multiple-episode arc about pec implants and an elaborate foray into method acting. A brawny, humorless Stretch Armstrong in a sweaty tank top, Jason clings to his glory days of guest appearances on police procedurals. Vivian, who runs a lifestyle website funded by Gad’s child-support checks, has ordered Jason to abandon acting to focus on Luke’s career, but he can’t quite bear to quit.
Mogel and Paul co-wrote The D Train, a 2015 movie with James Marsden and Jack Black that my colleague Christopher Orr described as “bromedy meets gay panic.” They also co-created The Grinder, a more charming fish-out-of-water comedy starring Rob Lowe as a deluded actor convinced that his stint playing a lawyer on television has qualified him to practice law in real life. Huge in France has its moments, including two separate cameos from Jerry Seinfeld and a winning joke about mustache adhesive. But it’s hard to square the chasm between the philosophical comedy the show begins as and the discomfiting farce it becomes. Gad himself starts to feel like an afterthought in the second episode, which descends into a strange plot about sperm donation that’s chased by an American stand-up’s Comedy Store routine about penises around the world.
So much is wasted here: Elmaleh’s charisma and sense of timing, Del Negro’s commitment to his ridiculous character, the inexplicable comedy of Seinfeld squinting crankily into a FaceTime call. What’s really lost, though, is the opportunity to say something meaningful about fame. On one side of the show is a megastar readjusting to an existence without the currency of stardom and all that it affords. On the other is a never-was who’s transferred his thwarted ambitions to a teenager. What’s it for? Huge in France sets up the question, but it never seems compelled to try to answer it.