CULTURE & ARTS
02/10/2020 3:15 PM IST | Updated 06/10/2020 9:20 PM IST

'Emily in Paris' Is As Boring And Basic As A Sponsored Instagram Story

Netflix’s new series aims for cosmopolitan fantasy but doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Netflix
'Emily in Paris' follows the title character (Lily Collins), a rising associate at a Chicago marketing firm who gets sent to Paris for work.

Wanna get away (from 2020, from the country, from the universe)? Who doesn’t. For fans of frothy romantic comedies and fashion eye candy, Netflix has the perfectly timed autumn offering: “Emily in Paris,” an aptly named series featuring the holy union of creator Darren Starr and costume consultant Patricia Field. The show offers an escape into a world of power clashing and intoxicating love triangles at a time when many of us sorely need it. 

Emily (Lily Collins) is a rising associate at a Chicago marketing firm. Her boss Madeline (Kate Walsh), a worldly and sexually adventurous single woman who speaks fluent French, is on the cusp of realizing her lifelong dream of moving to Paris for a year. Madeline will be overseeing the merger between their firm and a French one they have recently acquired. 

Instead, Madeline pukes in a wastebasket. Yes, she is unexpectedly pregnant, and now Emily will be going to Paris in her stead. Emily doesn’t speak French, and she has a solid boyfriend in Chicago. But she informs him that they’ll be long-distance for a year and jets off to France without a backward glance. Once there, she joins the team at Savoir, the French firm she must integrate into her Chicago company’s workflow, begins snapping selfies of herself eating pastries, and befriends the sexy chef, Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), who lives below her.

At Savoir, all is not quite well. Her new colleagues see her as provincial and frumpy, both obnoxiously work-obsessed and a professional liability. Her boss, Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), is an older Frenchwoman, naturally glamorous and sophisticated, and she sees Emily as nothing but an annoyance. On the other hand, Emily seems to win male admirers wherever she goes ― clients, random men at cafés, and, of course, the sexy chef. She also quickly makes friends with women she encounters on the street ― Mindy (Ashley Park), a Chinese expat and nanny who has been disinherited by her zipper tycoon father, and Camille (Camille Razat), a stunning blonde gallerist. Together they drink wine at cafés, exchange naughty gossip about love interests, and attend glittering high-fashion events.

This, of course, feels like a dispatch from another universe. The picture-perfect trip to Paris, complete with dark lipstick, beret-topped ensembles and spontaneous affaires with French semiotics professors, has never been more out of reach for the basic ― sorry, ringarde ― American woman. Travel restrictions, mask requirements, social distancing, and residence in a country rapidly sliding into authoritarian decline all conspire to make a carefree day spent wandering along the Seine with a croissant seem almost unimaginable.

But does this make “Emily in Paris” awkwardly out of step with the current moment, or the ideal escapist confection? Emma Gray and Claire Fallon sat down to discuss whether the Lily Collins vehicle offers a refreshing taste of frivolity in a hellish time, or whether it’s as flat as day-old Champagne.  

The Bottom Line

“Emily in Paris” is no “Sex and the City.” It has all of its predecessor’s frivolousness and capitalism, and none of its heart.

The Rundown

Claire: An American girl in Paris ― what could be a more seductive premise for a glossy, CW-style dramedy? The women of American TV all want to be in Paris, but they rarely seem to get there. There’s Lauren Conrad, the girl who didn’tgo to Paris; there’s Rachel Green, the girl who didn’t get on the plane (to Paris). There’s Carrie Bradshaw, the girl who moved to Paris and was promptly chewed up and spat all the way back to New York. All of those women stayed in America at least in part for a boyfriend, though Carrie at least made an effort to actually make it in France (for a different boyfriend). 

That was then. It’s 2020, and we’ve made an enormous step forward: Emily actually moves to Paris, leaving her boyfriend behind in Chicago, and tries to make it there without him. 

Emma, Emily is put forward as our American feminist heroine. In fact, like you, she is outspoken about sexism in the media, has shiny dark hair and enviable eyebrows (I mean, it’s Lily Collins), and always has the perfect matte lip and statement jacket for any occasion. Did you identify with her? Is Emily a protagonist you could get behind?

Emma: First of all, there has never been a greater compliment than “enviable eyebrows.” And I agree that Lily Collins has some great ones, so I will take it. Unfortunately, other than her A+ grooming and delightfully fantastical styling, there was very little about Emily that struck me as heroic or feminist. Truly, I should be the target audience for this show and for Emily as a character. I’m a middle-class white woman in her early 30s who grew up absolutely obsessed with “Sex and the City.” But despite my eternal problematic fave-ing of “SATC” and the much-maligned Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder… Is Emily the most grating protagonist on television?

Whereas Carrie Bradshaw was single and in her 30s when we meet her, and thus had spent more than a decade honing her (still questionable) professional talents and forming a close-knit group of women friends, Emily is a plucky white heroine who has very little work experience, very little experience being an independent person, and very few real obstacles set in front of her that make her worth rooting for. But despite these privileges, she walks around as though she is the authority on life, love and work. Mostly, I was annoyed. And I couldn’t tell if it was because of the sub-par acting or the sub-par character development or maybe just a combo of both. I also viscerally resented that every hot man she encountered on a Paris street fell in love with her, despite the fact that she had incredibly awkward energy and spoke no French. 

Claire, were you as disappointed by Emily as I was? And if so, how do you think she fits into the canon of romantic comedy protagonists?

Claire: “Emily in Paris” is a bland title, so it came as no particular surprise that Emily herself is a bland character. She’s slender and so beautiful that it’s quite believable when, in one episode, a fashion executive mistakes her for a movie star. The show doesn’t even make an effort to quirk her up or give her a more relatable, girl-next-door roughness: she’s always immaculately coiffed and made-up, and garbed in effortfully eye-catching outfits. But there’s not much to the character, except for enormous amounts of self-confidence and the inexplicable ability to attract new friends and love interests on every street corner. Collins seems to be powering through her performance on sheer enthusiasm, delivering her lines and reactions with gusto if not much finesse. Combined with the character’s clearly intentional (but still irritating) American-style narcissism, the result is a bit exhausting. Whenever Sylvie told Emily to leave her alone, I found myself silently agreeing.

In classic fish-out-of-water fashion, of course, Emily is meant to be changed by Paris. In one early episode, she tells a fellow account executive at Savoir, Luc, that he’s arrogant for criticizing American culture. “You came to Paris and you don’t speak French,” he retorts. “That is arrogant.” But in her new job at Savoir, she goes from success to success ― largely because of her unique American takes on things. She stresses social media gimmicks, which strike the Parisians as tacky, and is never hesitant to call her colleagues out on their sexism. 

In a rather half-hearted nod to the #MeToo movement ― and its French counterpart, #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig) ― Emily brings a fragrance ad shoot to a crashing halt in order to explain that women in her demographic will find the concept offensive. Though her insights are ultimately rejected, they draw the attention, both professional and perhaps romantic, of the handsome perfumier, Antoine (William Abadie), who is married and having a longstanding affair with Emily’s boss, Sylvie. (Meanwhile, Emily mostly laughs off truly inappropriate behavior in and out of the workplace, including an incident in which she sleeps with a boy who turns out to be 17.) 

In another episode, Emily accidentally markets a feminine hygiene product by tweeting her outrage that the French word for “vagina” is a masculine noun; we even see the back of Brigitte Macron’s head as she retweets it approvingly. It’s a version of feminism that feels extremely 2015: at its heart, it’s just another way to sell stuff.

Emma, what did you think of the depiction of Emily’s marketing career and Savoir? Advertising is obviously a foundational theme of the show.

Emma: Look, I’m no marketing executive, so the people can feel free to tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect that the way Savoir is depicted in the show is not quite reflective of what a career in marketing and advertising looks like in real life. Emily struts into Savoir as if all a master’s in marketing in the United States leaves you with is the ability to enthusiastically say “Social media! Social strategy!” over and over again until your product goes viral. 

The show felt like people trying to engage with the weirdness of current influencer culture and marketing, but just not really nailing it. The whole game of influencer marketing is subtlety ― like, if you scrolled by an ad in someone’s feed, it would take you a minute to realize it was an ad. This is what makes influencer advertising both so effective and so insidious. But nothing in “Emily in Paris” is subtle. Especially not her work. If I took the show at face value I would believe that a high-end designer could craft an entire collection in 10 hours by himself, that influencers go to events and film full advertisements mid-lunch, that an Instagram account blows up if you post 5 mediocre selfies paired with bad hashtag puns, and that sexual harassment is just par for the (hilarious!) course in French firms. 

I also want to talk about the way watching this show felt in a moment when we, as Americans, are quite literally banned from France. It certainly impacted the escapism of the project for me. How did you feel watching it?

Claire: It’s a master’s in communications, Emma. Look, she’s qualified. 

To be candid, I don’t know that it did affect the escapism for me. A picturesque French getaway is out of reach for most American viewers at any time, especially one featuring so much couture and Champagne, and while I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Paris for a few days, my experience bore no resemblance to Emily’s. The show is more like a Disney ride than an actual trip abroad: a highly Americanized, sanitized, buffed-and-shined product that signifies “Paris” to its audience through the deployment of famous buildings and clichéd accessories (croissants, baguettes, berets). It really is as if the whole city is a pop-up installation designed for influencers, much like the Museum of Ice Cream or the luxury beds Emily has placed underneath Parisian landmarks for an Instagram campaign for one of Savoir’s clients.

In that sense ― maybe I’m giving the show too much credit ― it does seem to capture that influencing life. The whole series is a testament to how American capitalist culture grinds up beauty, pleasure, and art and transforms them all into product. Everything is monetizable, and monetizability is everything. As Emily tells Luc, who is explaining the French philosophy of prioritizing life above work, “I enjoy work and accomplishment. It makes me happy!” Yuck! Imagine a less relatable sentiment right now. 

But speaking of Luc, let’s talk about Emily’s supporting cast. In addition to her Savoir frenemies and the hot chef downstairs, Emily befriends two random women on the street ― Mindy, a spunky Chinese zipper heiress and nanny who dreams of being a singer, and Camille, a gorgeous and sweet-natured gallerist who turns out to be Hot Chef’s girlfriend. Any standout characters or performances for you, Emma?

Emma: I think you hit the nail on the head with the show’s meta-commentary on the absolute emptiness of American capitalism. However, I’m not sure that commentary was intentional. 

In terms of standout characters, I have to shout out to my girl Sylvie, Emily’s very French, very over it boss who has the appropriate level of disdain for Emily’s endless pluckiness and attitude of American exceptionalism. Maybe it’s the sexy accents, but the French actors charmed me far more than the American ones did, in general. Truthfully, I would far rather watch a show about Sylvie, a 40-something, unmarried, professional powerhouse, than about Emily, a 20-something who continuously fails up and has zero problems finding a partner other than the fact that too many men adore her. (But Gabriel, the Hot Chef, is indeed very hot.) Throughout the season, we see Emily struggle with trying to assert her value within the French marketing firm and try to fit in within Parisian society. But Emily is the consummate try hard. Her outfits, her work ideas, even her very sentences are hyper-calculated. It’s no wonder that Sylvie is dismissive and annoyed when she sees her lover/client Antoine, a married French perfumier, mooning over Emily and her trés ringard ideas. 

Maybe that’s part of why this show made me annoyed rather than vacantly delighted. Because, truthfully, I’m no snob when it comes to TV. I love me some screen-based candy and I love clothing and I love aspirational travel. But maybe I don’t like being so acutely aware that that is what I’m consuming? Or I want that candy to go down seamlessly rather than sticking in my throat? Or maybe it’s just the contrast between the casually oblivious American in Paris setup that the show portrays at a time when it’s never felt clearer just how dangerous American self-importance is?

While I was watching “Emily In Paris,” I kept thinking about the Latin phrase, “panem et circenses,” or bread and circuses, referring to a steady diet of entertainment meant to keep the poor, oppressed masses docile. Little does Emily know that she’s mere months away from being in a months-long quarantine. 

Any final thoughts, Claire?

Claire: Watching the whole show wasn’t exactly a punishment, but it was hard to ignore the many ways it fell short. The performances, across the board, are broad and stilted. The depiction of Paris is cartoonish. Mindy’s storyline, about reclaiming her dreams of singing stardom, is given too little space to develop and feels shoehorned in. And Emily’s repeated rhapsodies on the value of marketing made me want to sell all my possessions and move somewhere with no Netflix access. 

So, Should You Watch It?

Emma: Look. Desperate COVID-19/election year times call for desperate measures. Like watching “Emily in Paris.” If you need something watchable but fairly bad, go for it. If not, feel free to skip.

Claire: “Emily in Paris” is lucky that we aren’t likely to see a new episode of “The Bold Type” any time soon. There isn’t the usual profusion of new TV right now. Still, if you’re on the fence, I’d recommend going with a “Sex and the City” rerun instead.

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