‘Emily in Paris’ Is Not a Good TV Show. Here’s Why Everybody’s Watching It Anyway
Do you believe in a world where you can jet off to Europe for work? Where stilettos and cobblestones go together like wine and cheese? Where nobody knows your name, but they’re inexplicably glad you came? Well, Netflix has a show for you, and it’s called Emily in Paris.
“I’ve spent my entire life wanting to be liked,” says Emily Cooper, heroine of the rom-com-lite series, to a potential paramour. “That’s a pretty miserable goal,” he replies. “Exactly,” she says.
Emily in Paris is equally shallow and ingratiating. It seeks in every way not to offend, to whisk viewers away to a 10-episode Parisian reverie where troubles melt like lemon drops way above the Mansard rooftops. In 25-minute increments, each sweet and airy as a macaroon, we see Emily traipse through her new life: A junior-level marketing professional from Chicago, she’s sent to France in lieu of her boss to run social media campaigns for a boutique agency there that reps high-end fashion clients. Oh, did we mention our heroine doesn’t speak a lick of French?
Though this would be an intensely stressful situation for most people, Emily (played by Lily Collins) carries it all with the weight of someone twirling down the Champs Élysées with a couple of shopping bags. Sure, she encounters problems here and there — she steps in dog poop one morning, the shower in her company-subsidized apartment konks out on her, her neighbors’ energetic sex sometimes keeps her awake — but, generally speaking, Emily lives a conflict-free existence. Showrunner Darren Star put Carrie Bradshaw through more in the opening credits of Sex and the City than he does with his latest leading lady over the course of this entire series.
Why, then, is this comically inane show currently the third most-watched thing on Netflix in America? One obvious answer, besides that Americans have bad taste, is that, in the year of our lord 2020 — which has rained down upon us the coronavirus, historic wildfires, battering earthquakes and hurricanes, and an apocalyptic-feeling election season — we’ll take easy and struggle-free wherever we can get it. (Emily is flanked in the Netflix top 10 by Adam Sandler’s latest offering, Hubie Halloween, and a gender-flipped American Pie spin-off, Girls’ Rules.) If the basic premise of the show defies logic, the narcotic experience of each episode mutes it altogether, deactivating the thinking part of your brain until you’re gazing at your screen like it’s a dentist who gassed you 20 minutes ago to rip out a molar.
In Emily’s world, there is no challenge too great to be brushed off with a cute facial expression and a shrug, like a human emoji: wrinkled nose (offended); eyebrows cresting upward (worried); thinking face (thinking); kissy face (Instagramming). “C’est la vie!” she chirps to her new coworkers when something goes awry — a French expression that actual French people don’t utter very often. And those pesky work conundrums, the kind that would produce days of crying-in-the-ladies-room drama for the rest of us? They’re resolved with a White Strips-bright smile and one brilliant, tossed-off idea after another. Emily, you see, runs on instinct. She never has to refer to her notes or research competitors or sit staring at a blank computer screen praying for inspiration to strike. She simply opens her mouth, and a promotion comes out. (One alarmingly well-received proposal for a faltering champagne house: “We market the champagne as a ‘spray’” — that is, we tell customers that the bubbly your family has been making for centuries is good enough for American frat bros to shake up and fire at one another at parties, but not to drink. Mon dieu!)
Naturally, as someone who is saddled with little to no stress, Emily is also averse to learning of any kind. She enrolls in a French language class but by around Episode Eight can say little more than “bonjour” and “vous.” (No matter, she wins over her French neighbors and colleagues by being relentlessly chipper.) She marvels at how chic her French boss is, but, instead of emulating her black jumpsuits and sophisticated wrap dresses, continues to show up to work looking like a Claire’s catalogue vomited on her (costume designer Patricia Field bringing her signature brand of designer kitsch). She accepts unsolicited lingerie and kisses, a.k.a. sexual harassment, from older male clients, presumably chalking it up to their Frenchness, yet is aghast when a guy her own age tells her he likes “American pussy.”
With Star behind the wheel, the most likely comparison point for Emily in Paris is Sex and the City. But, save for its female characters tottering around city streets in impractical heels, and a few Easter eggs here and there, Emily shares little DNA with its supposed progenitor. You could practically smell the writer’s room on that show, the personal anecdotes flying around about funky spunk and getting dumped by Post-it and eating cake out of the garbage. Emily, meanwhile, has the flat affect of a cheesy Eighties sitcom, the feel that it could’ve been written largely by people who wouldn’t know Paris, France, from Paris, Indiana. And while SATC certainly trafficked in the vain and frivolous — getting into the hottest club, forfeiting an apartment down payment in favor of a closetful of $500 shoes — it centered female friendships and grounded its storylines in real issues, like dysfunctional marriages or infertility. Emily is not dissecting and driving culture the way SATC did; it’s skating over its surface in ignorant bliss.
This fantasy is likely highly potent for millennials, whose ranks Emily presumably occupies, though her age is difficult to discern (styled with her brightly-hued miniskirts and basic beachy waves, Collins looks like she could be anywhere from 12 to Real Housewife). Her love life, too, is not uncomplicated, but at least it very much exists — as with everything else in this show, hot men seem to fall into Emily’s lap — in opposition to all those depressing trend stories that told us the Kids These Days stopped dating long before Covid struck.
Beyond her various suitors, though, Emily is more or less on her own. She has a couple of work frenemies. Her sassy new friend, Mindy (Ashley Park), a fellow American abroad, makes a case for being the New Samantha — she calls Sancerre a “breakfast wine” and laments that if she returns home to China to run her father’s business she’ll have to “start dressing like Angela Merkel.” But even she exists on the periphery of Emily’s narrowly focused days, which toggle between job and crushes.
The show has little of substance to say about the knotty complications of how young people live and work today. A throwaway incorporation of social media is where its insight begins and ends, as we witness Emily become an influencer just as easily as she does everything else. While we all know people with only tens of followers who still spend hours staging the “perfect” selfie, Emily snaps the most banal image possible — here I am eating a croissant; here I am doing duck face in front of the Eiffel Tower; here I am touching foreheads with my BFF; here’s a cheeseburger — and her likes and new fans ratchet upward faster than the national debt.
It is tempting, actually, to view the entire series as a kind of avatar for Instagram (pretty to look at, vaguely numbing), and Emily an avatar for millennials (or at least the rap they get) — entitled and eager to believe that all of their ideas are genius, all of their opinions are right, success is granted. More accurate, though, may be that she is an antidote to millennials’ woes — a representation of the life they were promised that, thanks to the Great Recession, climate change, rising inequality, and now a devastating pandemic, they’ve never seen materialize.
As for those of us outside the confines of that age range, what’s our excuse for watching all 10 episodes? Maybe we want a do-over — one where getting ahead was not the shit-eating slog it often proves to be. Maybe it’s just nice, after four years of sociopolitical decline in which insult passes for discourse, to live in a universe where the goal is actually not to offend. Let’s not only let millennials have this dreamscape; let’s join them in its warm, dumb embrace. Let’s all spray each other with expensive champagne and put the boomerang video on Insta. And when we wake up to reality tomorrow, well, c’est la vie.
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