The style of “Emily in Paris” drives viewers crazy.
There were groans when the first season of the Netflix series was nominated for Best Comedy at a Golden Globe and Emmy. She spoke of a widely circulated piece of New Yorker as part of the rising trend of “ambient television,” calling it “an artifact of contemporary dystopia.”
The nomination of “Emily in Paris” as one of the best TV shows certainly seems a bit exaggerated. But, with the show’s second season dropping on December 22, its being described as being at the forefront of any contemporary movement, not to mention miserable. Television that exists to be watched in the ocean rather than obsessed with is something that has been with us throughout the history of the medium; In fact, it was only relatively recently that television drama began to be treated as a fine art. And so, in its second season, “Emily in Paris” offers more of the same, more of something TV can do well: charming, watchable, low-friction entertainment in a fun-to-watch environment. It’s not the best thing. But it’s a good TV.
As played by Lily Collins, Emily is a bit of a cipher: she wants to be in Paris as she’s looking for love and new experiences, but she seems to exercise a little of her own will, stumbling into and out of situations. Her victories at work, at a luxury goods marketing firm, are seen as charitable, serendipitous – seen more realistically, often entirely accidental. When she makes a mistake, no one gets angry with her for long. And when she scores a win, she’s quickly laid off as her co-workers move on to the next thing.
It all adds up to a show that isn’t terribly intimidating or demanding, and sparkles with the charm of its setting and the story of an age-old cultural conflict. (Indeed, in portraying an American whose sunny belief in himself undermines Europeans’ stifling defenses, “Emily in Paris” can sometimes play as Nassif “Ted Lasso”). And Emily in Paris’ shortcomings – her refusal to engage in the concept of actions with consequences, for example – can be seen as the result of her endless quest to show us the next charming place, the next delirious misunderstanding. It’s TV that’s really episodic, organizing and resolving situations with little long-term change like in an episode of “The Simpsons.”
It all catches the eye of this viewer as an absolutely fantastic use of the medium. Sometimes one wants to watch “The Sopranos”, and sometimes, vignettes from the life of a young woman wandering in a foreign city in search of love will do very well. Emily in Paris would surely be richer, more complex and layered if she gave Collins more to play, or studied the clash between her American values and the somewhat arrogant old-world development of her French employers in greater depth. But to maintain great entertainment at the level of great art is a recipe for unhappiness.
This does not mean that any old slob can be excused as long as it amuses someone. But “Emily in Paris” is brilliant at Collins’ acting, and carries her features somewhat blankly as a commentary on the age of social media in which I’d argue the show knows it’s making it. If Emily’s life in pursuit of likes on Instagram has been “miserable,” the series knows it; The randomness of her business successes seems to be a commentary on the ups and downs of life on the Internet.
Likewise, the series has something to say about self-indulgence: Emily’s failure to learn French or immerse herself in French culture, a concern for the show’s haters, is dealt with decisively in this new season. Her Americanness, and insistence on her exceptional nature, often helps Emily out, but it also shows, at times, as an inherent limitation that she has to work to overcome. She is forced to confront herself, in sitcom-appropriate ways, all against a mood-lightening champagne backdrop.
This lively setting can easily be read as whatever happens in the picture. And perhaps the fact that “Emily in Paris” can be interpreted in very different ways—among the best of TV shows, as a harbinger of the end times, or as a great show that manages to lift spirits and speak volumes for something—suggests that there is some art in the formula after all.