One of the magical things about television is how, through the power of drama and/or comedy, it can take someone who would, in almost any other context, be the worst person you know, and make them fun to watch. That’s not to say that Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), the eponymous star of Emily In Paris, is a terrible person. She’s just someone you’d diplomatically describe in text messages as “a lot,” and in the new Netflix series, you get to see her inflicted on an entire nation.
Emily In Paris is one of the most watchable new shows on Netflix this fall, ridiculous in the way the best romantic comedies are, even if it’s a bit short on the charm. It starts with a dream job: when Emily’s boss at Chicago marketing firm Savoir discovers she’s pregnant, she abandons her plan to move to the company’s Paris office. Instead, she inexplicably (you have to get used to that word, not a lot of things happen in this show for a good reason) sends Emily. And so Emily Cooper takes the assignment of a lifetime, moving to France to help bring “an American perspective” to the Paris staff of Savoir.
Equal parts a classic fish-out-of-water premise and a perfect encapsulation of why the show is hilarious (like anyone needs help figuring out what Americans think), Emily In Paris spends its 10-episode first season maintaining a tension between earnestness and absurdity that lesser shows would buckle under. It helps that Emily is surrounded by all the trappings of great television: breezy scripts, a charming cast of good-looking people, and the lifestyle porn that any good aspirational show has: lavish outfits, glamorous parties, and picturesque views.
Emily has an extremely hot and kind neighbor, Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), a pair of amusingly effete co-workers, a hardass boss to win over, Sylvie (Phillippine Leroy-Beaulieu), and a rotating cast of clients and other acquaintances who provide kindling for romantic and professional mishaps. Sometimes both.
It’s often unclear whether Emily In Paris is making fun of Emily or not. Its funniest moments are when Emily’s privilege runs amok and she’s actually checked on it; the show’s charm does a lot of work to keep it from being grating. She arrives in an office full of people she’s never worked with and immediately tries to impose new rules, is frequently baffled by cultural differences, and stubbornly insists on doing things her way. Things always work out for her, because Paris is here for her, it is here for you, a flaky pastry and a mouthful of wine to wish your troubles away with.
Emily In Paris is light television meant to be devoured and mostly forgotten. But it also comes from Darren Star, a creator who’s made a name for himself specializing in aspirational television, mostly geared toward white women. Sex and the City defined an entire generation’s idea of making it in their careers and personal lives, and while not as monumental, his Younger is a savvy update with a twist, where a middle-aged woman lies about her age to try and make it with all the young up-and-comers.
Each had a very different perspective of work — on the former show, it barely mattered, on the latter, it’s one half of your life that threatens to entangle itself in the other. In Emily In Paris, work is the point of... well, everything.
When you think about this, Emily In Paris starts to look bleak. In an attempt to be of the moment, Emily In Paris reveals how demoralizing our moment is. 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.
Emily is the person who you have to bully into taking a vacation and who, when she finally relents, sends daily emails with “helpful” ideas for ways you can continue to crush it while she’s gone. In fact, she’d probably come back with “great news” from three meetings she had anyway. Emily has a dream job and loves it, it just sucks that her job — like many of our modern, less-glamorous jobs— is merely being a vessel for brands.
This is a drag, because Emily In Paris is an infinitely watchable rom-com. (In this regard it’s very much like Younger, a rom-com broken up into a half-hour TV show.) Emily has a sweet and hot French neighbor, but instead of running off with him to get away from work for a weekend, Emily In Paris can only envision a world where the real stakes of said getaway are professional.
The point of the dream job was supposed to be a check that allowed us to vacation in Paris whenever we wanted. But now, the only way that happens is if Paris is the job.