Although Binge-Worthy, ‘Emily in Paris’ Skirts around the Heart of its Protagonist and Location

A still from 'Emily in Paris'. Emily (Lily Collins) is shown in a head and shoulders shot, to the right of the image, the background is blurred and she is the focus. She has very fair skin and brown hair in a ponytail. Her pink lipstick matches that of her fancy coat and the bouquet of roses in the crutch of her arm. She clutches a coffee cup also.

Now is the perfect time to watch something silly. When life gets crazy (like, for example, when a global pandemic shuts us inside for months), light, goofy, easy-to watch TV is the best escape. These types of shows, like The Bold Type, Younger, and Sex and the City, can sometimes be a little unrealistic — how does Carrie Bradshaw afford her apartment? — but their adherence to comforting, familiar rom-com tropes help viewers binge them with ease. Netflix’s latest release, Emily in Paris, should fit snugly inside this fun, frothy genre. However, the show doesn’t go down as easily as it should. Emily in Paris follows Emily (Lily Collins), a young American woman whose job sends her to, well, Paris. She replaces her boss at the last minute, so she is woefully unprepared. Most importantly, she doesn’t speak French, and barely seems to try. As Emily settles into her new life, Emily in Paris crosses the line from fantasy to flat-out unreal (how do you gain tens of thousands of Instagram followers by doing nothing?). The show demonstrates how important this line is, even in the soapiest of guilty pleasure rom-coms. 

Romantic comedies are all about wish-fulfilment, and on paper, that’s exactly what Emily in Paris should provide. Her high-powered marketing job evokes the glamorous corporate world of The Devil Wears Prada or even Netflix’s best work in the genre, Set it Up. She gets to live in Paris! Her neighbour is an Armie Hammer-esque hottie! She meets two new best friends by bumping into them on the street! So why is the show so frustrating? Instead of being whisked away into Emily’s magical world, we’re left unsatisfied by Emily’s choices as our guide. She wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice travel companion: her power-clashing outfits are confounding, her “viral” social media posts are bland, and she only seems to care about work. We all know we’d make much better use of her fairytale life. We’d wear better outfits, learn French, have more romantic flings, make more friends, and have MUCH better Instagram accounts. Emily laments that she could never share a crepe — she has to have “the whole crepe.” So why does watching the show feel like being cheated out of the tasty treat we were promised? Emily meets a few intriguing men, only to keep them at an arm’s length. She gets access to exclusive French parties and fashion houses, only to embarrass herself. Emily is supposed to be the audience surrogate, but instead she acts as quite the opposite; she’s been gifted with a glamorous, sexy new life, and she’s squandering it before our eyes. Live a little, Emily, and let us live vicariously! 

The show is also surprisingly sexless — we know that creator Darren Star, who previously helmed Sex and the City, is capable of delivering in this department, but relationships seem perfunctory in Emily’s world. She has a promising will-they-or-won’t-they with her aforementioned hot neighbour, but that turns from steamy to sour fast when she learns he’s dating one of her new friends (a friend, I might add, who’s much more likeable than her). The show scorns these possible pleasures in favour of Emily’s marketing job. In the workplace, her heedlessly positive and distinctly American attitude turns out to be somewhat of an asset, but it’s not very fun to watch. Her ideas are often hollow, capitalist, and somewhat dubious. We watch her do classic rom-com-media-job tasks like babysit a celebrity, model a dress, and go viral on Instagram, but none of them come with a lesson or purpose besides filling her time (look to The Bold Type for a show that does this right). Emily’s empty, workaholic ideals work against the natural charms of the show’s setting and vibe. And the show does have a few things going for it; it’s highly watchable, her two best friends are charismatic (if not a little underwritten), and their beautifully filmed jaunts through Paris let us “travel” somewhere new during quarantine. But the other aspects of the show shouldn’t have to work so hard to pick up Emily’s slack.

Early on in the show, Emily’s French coworker tells her that she lives to work, and she needs to learn from the Parisians and work to live. Logically, it seemed as though that would be the lesson Emily slowly learned over the (admittedly very easily bingeable) twelve-episode arc to become more carefree, less career-focused, and more, well, French. Unfortunately, it seems like she learns the opposite lesson. She throws herself into her work and her social media presence, which both revolve around very empty goals. By the end of the season, Emily seems more American than ever. Emily is only “in” Paris as much as oil can be “in” water; she and Paris are two very separate entities that have been thrown together and forced to work out their differences. While Carrie Bradshaw’s true love is New York City, Emily and Paris are more of an odd couple. Frustratingly, Emily never seems to make any compromises with her new city, or try to get to know it beyond her own rigid terms. Her love affair is instead with the fake “Paris” that she presents to her followers on social media. Ideally, Emily in Paris would show her diving headfirst into the real Paris, the way we’d all dream of doing. Instead, potential adventures and relationships fizzle, and Emily skates safely on top of a city that has so much more depth to offer.

Emily in Paris Season 1 is available to stream now exclusively on Netflix

by Clare Reynders

Clare (she/her) majored in Media Studies at Vassar College, before moving to NYC to work as an assistant at NBC like the rom-com protagonist she is. She is also both a teenage film bro who just watched Fight Club and a middle-aged Nancy Meyers completist, depending on the day. Favourite movies include: Scott Pilgrim, Scream, The Social Network, The Princess Bride, Moonstruck, and Down With Love. You can find her on twitter @clarereyy or on letterboxd @clarerey.

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