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The Mysteries of Emily in Paris

The flaws of Darren Star’s new Netflix show may be perfectly calibrated for binge-watching in 2020.

Lily Collins in the Netflix series Emily in Paris
Courtesy of Netflix

The ruinous effect contracting Covid-19 has had on my short-term memory is, happily, not a problem when it comes to remembering the key plot points of Netflix’s soapy, flimsy sitcom Emily in Paris, each new episode being more or less a carbon copy of its predecessor. Emily (Lily Collins), a young Chicagoan who does not speak a word of French, invariably does something très Américaine and scandaleuse, like, for example, being pleasant to a co-worker, or eating carbs, or attempting to introduce a rigid set of corporate guidelines that are irritatingly, inexplicably styled after the ten commandments. Emily’s fellow employees, being French, are forced to take time out of their already hectic schedules of smoking, philandering, scowling, discussing sexual positions in the office, being perverts, pooh-poohing the general ideal of “feminism,” and shopping for lingerie to either disapprove of her or hit on her. Eventually, it is agreed that Emily—despite being unbelievably uninteresting, gregarious to the point of irksomeness, and the author of such dazzling social media content as “chocolate + butter = heart emoji”—is an internet-literate luxury marketing wunderkind, the office savior, and perhaps the most alluring woman this side of the Seine. She is a fetching worker bee, a sentient version of one of those grocery bags with “Have a Nice Day” printed on it. “I enjoy work and accomplishment,” she says, smiling the most American smile. “It makes me happy.”

Emily in Paris has not, as it turns out, made viewers or critics very happy—its insulting view of both Parisians and Americans has made its message appear muddled, the result being a show that comes across as half-escapist, half-absurdist, all tooth-grindingly unpleasant. Does it believe that Americans are corn-fed, flashy capitalist pig-dogs who could stand to learn restraint from their chill European cousins, that the French are pompous sex maniacs who need to be dragged into the present day by hip Americans, or some unholy mix of both? The synopsis “Emily brings her can-do attitude to Paris” is already off-putting enough for people like myself, who generally do not enjoy having a can-do attitude within a two-mile radius of their person: Throw in lines like “the whole city looks like Ratatouille” and “you have to try my coq”—mais oui, bien sûr, hon he hon!—and Emily in Paris begins to look positively radioactive, a critical bomb engineered to be hate-watched in a single, wincing gulp.

It does not help that Emily, a purported social media visionary, uses Instagram as if she’s in her fifties, her bad puns and flurries of emojis generic enough that even factoring in her beauty, her rise to the status of an influencer seems implausible. There may be no more obvious indication that this series is not the creation of an actual millennial than the plotline in which Emily, incensed that the French word for vagina is masculine and not feminine, goes viral with the statement “the vagina is not male.” In the show, her post ends up being shared by the wife of the president, Brigitte Macron; in life, one hopes it might result in a workplace discussion about its presumably unintentional undertone of transphobia. (There is, it turns out, no H.R. department—when Emily’s male boss leaves a lingerie set on her desk with a note about sexism versus sexiness, it is written off as Parisian rather than as harassment.)

And yet: Emily in Paris is at present one of Netflix’s most popular new shows, the subject of innumerable articles and listicles and a plethora of commentary on Twitter. The consensus would appear to be that although it is bad, it is bad in the perfect mode for circa-2020 bingeing: lightweight and unchallenging enough to avoid being offensive, and absurd enough to allow viewers to poke holes in its logic. Why would an American, greeting a new French neighbor who was born in Normandy, explain that they were familiar with the place from “Saving Private Ryan—you know, D Day?”? Why would a couturier want his marketing to be handled by a girl who self-identifies as “ringarde,” which the show translates as “basic”? Why would Ratatouille be a 27-year-old woman’s immediate reference for the architectural style of Paris? Looking for sensible answers to one’s questions about Emily in Paris is a pointless exercise, like trying to intellectualize one of those screen savers that looks like the interior of a fish tank. Brainless, bright, and soothing, the monotony of its plotlines is near-meditative. Where else, In These Frightening And Uncertain Times, can one guarantee an absolute lack of unpredictability?

On her first day at the office, Emily reveals that she has no experience in fashion marketing—to date, her biggest coup has been a social media campaign promoting a new diabetes medicine, increasing revenue by 63 percent. “So you create the disease,” one of the Paris office’s employees asks her, “and then you treat the disease, and then you market the treatment of the disease?” Americans, he tells her cruelly, are all “fat”; they eat “disgusting” food, unlike the French, who develop their diabetes the correct way, by replacing all their meals with cigarettes. Setting aside the discomfort inherent in watching an actress who has openly discussed her anorexia being dressed down about “fat” and “disgusting” Americans, it is interesting that the show brings up the idea of being addicted to unnecessary trash—there may be nobody more qualified to address the invention, manufacture, sale, and remarketing of compulsive, sugary indulgences than Emily in Paris’s prolific show-runner, Darren Star, who created both Beverly Hills 90201 and Melrose Place in the early 1990s and who later went on to produce this show’s most direct spiritual ancestor, Sex and the City.

Much like Carrie, the sex columnist and shopping addict at the center of that earlier series, Emily is a designer-label fiend, a clothes-horse whose seemingly inexhaustible supply of suitors all conform to very narrow, very white, traditionally masculine beauty ideals. The two women share a stylist, the eccentric, singular Patricia Field, and they share a peculiar prissiness in sexual matters, even as they try to act like libertines. They live in perfect, neat apartments, despite both places supposedly being shabby and low-cost. Still, where Emily seems to breeze through life as if nothing had consequences, Carrie at least sometimes suffered, behaved badly, and betrayed those she loved, and if her sex life was less piquant than it might have been, her friend Samantha’s added zest. A replacement for those suffering withdrawal from Sex and the City’s largely saccharine fantasy about four wealthy, high-powered, good-looking women with enough free time for weekly three-hour lunches, Star’s new show feels like a Snickers subbing in for a Ladurée macaron: still very bad for you but in a less sophisticated way.

When Emily’s black-clad, chic, middle-aged boss, Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), informs her that she “has no mystery,” she is correct: While we know relatively little about Emily’s inner life, “mystery” usually implies some hidden depth, some enigmatic quality. What Emily is is fairly hollow, all that sound and all those furiously clashing patterns signifying nothing. Accidentally, Emily in Paris functions as a critique of American self-centeredness, an extroverted tendency to see oneself as the protagonist in any situation. Egocentric New York women who hope to discover themselves through a brief sojourn in Paris are not an unusual occurrence in film, literature, and television. (A new novel out this month, The Superrationals by Stephanie LaCava, twists the American girl in Paris trope to do the same work by design that Emily in Paris does unintentionally—its brown-haired, quirky-gorgeous cipher of a heroine, adored by men and entrenched in an industry every bit as luxurious as high-end fashion marketing, is carefully written to be empty and evasive, the result less light and aspirational than it is coolly existential.) Carrie Bradshaw ended up in Paris, too, chasing her serious Russian boyfriend, whom she teased for being pretentious, and whom she eventually left for a man so American that she compared him to the Chrysler building.

It took Carrie two episodes to decide that she was not Paris material, the city boring her within two or three weeks of her arrival. It did not occur to me until a recent rewatch that the only time she appears to be happy on the trip is when she stumbles across what she describes as “my French fan base—all two of them” in a bookshop. “I love Sex and ze City!” one bookseller shrieks, fawningly. “I am, uh, ow you say, ze ‘single girl’?” “I have ze sex,” her gay co-worker cries, covering his mouth with ecstasy, “you have ze sex! We all have ze sex!” After an afternoon of sulking, Carrie is immediately reanimated. The resentment that she harbors toward Paris and Parisians is not because she does not speak the language, and her problem with her boyfriend is not that he happens to be busy with his exhibition: Her concern is that, in Paris, she is no longer the center of attention, merely another American girl who thinks the lighting display on the Eiffel Tower is charmant and not a hideous concession to tourism.

Sex and the City’s later seasons merged a defiantly consumerist vision of romance with an older, more angular version of Carrie, who was, in the words of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, “scarred” and “strikingly gun-shy.” Emily, who has not yet met a man she cannot seduce or a mind she cannot change with the power of positive thinking, has no reason to be scarred or gun-shy in Emily in Paris. Perhaps this is what makes it the ultimate 2020 fantasy—it offers up a world that never requires its heroine to change herself or to admit that she is wrong, or to feel frightened, or to fail at getting everything she wants. Those smoking, lovemaking Parisians may be right: Certain Americans are simply too coqsure for their own good.