Emily in Paris is a buzzy new Netflix show that climbed into the streaming service’s top 10 almost immediately after it premiered on Friday. An escapist half-hour dramedy featuring lots of pretty things to look at seems like many people’s idea of a good time right now.
Unfortunately for me, and everyone else who’s embarked upon a viewing of this brightly colored car wreck, it’s impossible to look away — even though the Darren Star–created series has neither the wit of his biggest hit, Sex and the City, nor the charm of its smaller but much-beloved Younger. Ten 30-minute episodes are just few enough to force yourself to get the whole thing over with, if only for the sake of completism, even though Lily Collins’ titular Emily is the most grating bright-eyed ingenue to grace our screens in a hot second.
Emily, a young marketing maven, winds up in the City of Light because her colleague, played by Kate Walsh (who deserves better than this), needs to give up the placement last-minute because she gets pregnant (and thus gives up an opportunity for French maternity leave and childcare???). Emily arrives at the Parisian office newly acquired by her marketing company, guns blazing, and promptly makes a bunch of rules for all these French people she does not know — and whose language, of course, she does not speak.
One of the first conversations we see between Emily and her new French colleagues — all of which inexplicably take place in French-accented English (even when Emily isn’t there!) — involves the cliched debate about why Americans are “so fat.” Emily meekly tries to counter by calling them out on smoking cigarettes, rather than battling their offensive straw man argument and/or telling them to stuff it.
To me the most offensive thing about Emily in Paris is its inability to get me to care at all about any of these characters.
Collins, like many a young starlet who scores this kind of fish out of water role, is white, beautiful, and very, very thin. (She’s spoken openly about her history with an eating disorder in the past.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with being thin, of course, but as Emma Specter points out in Vogue, “even in 2020, fat people — who, by the way, make up nearly half of Americans — are still more likely to be invoked in dehumanizing language on shows chronicling thin people’s quirky exploits than they are to be given narratives of their own.”
The show, as many have pointed out, feels fresh out of 2005, even though Emily’s bafflingly quick rise to social media influencer status is all too modern. Unlike another similarly girlboss-y show, The Bold Type, Emily in Paris doesn’t even bother to gesture at the contemporary tenets of corporate feminism, let alone any other kind of justice-minded narrative. Whereas Emily’s Bold Type counterparts contend with issues like racism in magazine publishing, queer representation, and sexual harassment and assault, Emily’s biggest crises involve small-fry problems on the job, which are mostly the result of her hopeless Americanness and failure to adapt to French culture.
Even though we’re given a very vague sense of where Emily comes from, and her “boring,” normal Middle American upbringing — her mom was a teacher; her first plane ride was at age 12 — we aren’t given any idea how this relatively young little careerist is able to don herself every day in (often ridiculous) pieces of couture. In that sense, she has a lot in common with her predecessor, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie, who infamously (and completely inconceivably) afforded a Manhattan apartment and spent $40K a year on shoes on a freelance writer’s salary. And while I’d like to report that Emily, like Carrie, has an exciting mix of breathtaking outfits alongside admirably risky flops, the wins are far too few and far between for a show that I’m watching mostly for the clothes. I did like a couple of looks — a ruffled white blouse with a short plaid jacket and wide-leg jeans comes to mind — but most of the time she’s disturbingly matchy-matchy, like her head-to-toe pink-and-black checked getup. I love a good monochrome look, but the girl goes too far (not to mention that quality-wise, a lot of it looks far too cheap for a Darren Star joint, like she’d just rolled out of a Forever 21). And as for her apartment, we’re told it’s supposedly a chambre de bonne (a former maid’s quarters, where I’ve once stayed in Paris; they’re broom closets). I knew not to expect Emily’s version of cheap American-in-Europe living to hew anywhere close to reality, but when I saw her beautiful, spacious flat with a killer view, I may or may not have screamed.
At least everybody’s hot. Camille Razat as Camille, the girlfriend of her smoking downstairs neighbor, Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), is a blonde charmer, though you can never quite figure out why this cool French woman would befriend a peppy maniac like Emily. Gabriel, too, is a very worthy love interest, even though he doesn’t really do too much besides stand there and look nice. I also don’t care for the trope of: You have a flirty thing with a guy, then you become fast friends with a girl who you find out later is, darn, the guy’s gf! It makes it hard to root for a protagonist from the jump, and Emily, whose main personality traits are a) earnest and b) clueless, could use all the help she can get.
That’s ultimately where the show falls flat for me. Though plenty of critics have found it fun-bad (“an irresistible fantasy”), and I love fun-bad almost more than actually good television, I just found Emily in Paris mostly…bad-bad. Obviously French people were gonna hate it, and its presentation of American optimism, innocence, and exceptionalism could not be more ill-timed, but to me the most offensive thing about Emily in Paris is its inability to get me to care at all about any of these characters. All of the other older French guys who court her between her mooning over Gabriel start to look and sound the same; her boss, who is, of course, jealous of Emily for earning one of those men’s affections, is a bad Miranda Priestly knockoff; and the flamboyant French designer, Emily’s prized new client, is way too boring for a supposed drama queen.
Perhaps worst of all, it doesn’t seem like at the end of 10 episodes Emily has come close to embracing Parisian attitudes about living for pleasure rather than living to work. As Joshua Rivera pointed out for the Verge, “Nearly all of Emily’s waking hours are consumed by her job, and her job isn’t about helping people succeed, it’s about helping brands. Her plucky American go-getter attitude means every romantic night or friendly getaway is an impromptu pitch meeting waiting to happen, every glimpse of Parisian charm is an opportunity to bolster her social media following, and every friendship another bit of networking.”
Maybe by Season 2 (and ugh, this thing is gonna get multiple seasons, isn’t it — a punch in the gut when Netflix continues to prematurely cancel beloved shows about queer women and women of color like Glow), Emily will do a little more growing, and thus get a little less grating. But you won’t catch me finding out. ●