A few weeks ago, I exercised my privileges as a TV critic to watch an as-yet unreleased TV show about a young American with gorgeous caterpillar brows who takes a marketing job in Paris, despite speaking no French. Eyebrows in Paris, I thought, falling asleep that night, and then thought of it no more. (This is why I don’t program a streaming platform.) A few weeks later, the show smashed back into my waking life, apparently the only piece of pop culture that could break through the relentlessness of the news. In our post-ratings world, I have no idea how many people have actually watched Emily in Paris, a “Top 10” show on Netflix, but I am confident 99 percent of the people who watched it have tweeted about it. Opinions expressed on that platform and elsewhere have been near-uniformly negative, but they have also, unlike so many opinions, been informed. Whatever we are, we are also watching Emily in Paris.
Emily in Paris belongs to a storied category of show, the hate watch—which, to be pedantic, I have always thought was the wrong name. It’s more like a self-hate watch (though that isn’t quite right either), because it isn’t just that you are evaluating the show’s quality—that happens with every show—but that the show is putting you into an alienated relationship with yourself and your own taste. Why am I still watching The Newsroom, even though I can tell it is hugely flawed? What is Smash doing for me, and to me, that I enjoy it, even though I see that it is broken? Why have I burned through all of Emily in Paris in two days? A hate watch can’t be all bad, or we wouldn’t watch at all, but it can’t be all good, or we’d spend less time thinking about it. I love a category of thing that makes taste wobble before us like a possessed seesaw (anything to remind us that what we prefer is personal and imperfect). But does that mean I have to love Emily in Paris?
This frothy, capitalist fantasia belongs to a category of show about which judgment comes easily. It’s TV chick lit, a rom-com in a foreign location where nothing bad ever happens and the cute protagonist gets laid a lot on her way to having it all. But the complicating thing about Emily in Paris—the best thing about it really, the thing that turns it from a trifle people enjoy into a curiosity they enjoy insulting—is how brittle its protagonist is. This quality is confusing, because the show visually resembles creator Darren Star’s Younger, which starred the delightful Sutton Foster, and apes the premise of his Sex and the City, another show about an indomitable and very charming woman in (significantly less good but still try-hard) clothes, making her way in a fashionable metropolis that has been sanitized into a back lot. Emily (Lily Collins) cannot figure out how to take the Métro any more than Carrie Bradshaw took the subway, but the similarities end there. For all the random Parisians that take to her, Emily, particularly in a work context, gives a horrible first impression. She is not a charmer, a flirt, or an observer. She is a bulldozer. When she meets a hotelier, also from her native Chicago, at a party, she jumps right into a pitch, trying to win his business for the marketing firm at which she is a social media expert. The hotelier finds it off-putting, and so do we: Where is the light conversation, the flirtation, the Carrie Bradshaw? There is only Emily, perkily focused on her uninspired work, who uses her beauty to grease being a grind.
The show is full of this of kind of tension, underscoring both its own and Emily’s flaws. Emily’s boss Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) despises her, and while she takes it a little far sometimes, she’s still a billion times cooler and more interesting than Emily, who is correctly identified, midshow, as a basic bitch. Meanwhile, there’s a bunch of chatter about how Americans love the cheeseball happy ending of a romantic comedy, in order to insulate Emily in Paris, a cheeseball romantic comedy. In all of these instances, the show’s autocritique is ultimately self-serving, like the flaws you share at a job interview. Sure, Emily’s basic, but that’s why the world of high fashion needs her, she’s an emissary of the people! Sure, happy endings aren’t necessarily real, but aren’t they a better fantasy than gloomy tragedy? Fine, Emily won’t try to learn anything from her new environment, but that’s OK, because what all French companies really need is an American from Chicago to teach them about social media! And yet, meaningless as the show’s knowingness turns out to be, it works. It registers as better than nothing.
It’s on the subject of social media that Emily in Paris gets really fascinating.
Upon her arrival in Paris, Emily begins to Instagram as Emily in Paris, the only thing on the whole show she does effortlessly (besides having orgasms). Emily’s relationship with her booming social media presence is frictionless. It’s not just that she never takes a picture twice, or obsesses over a caption, it’s that she’s completely unconflicted about it—and rarely on it. (Compare, if you dare, I May Destroy You’s recent treatment of social media fame.) Instead, the 6.3K likes she accrues on a pic of her eating a croissant or posing on a Parisian street with a friend immediately pop up on screen, although she never checks them herself. She’s complimented that she’s an “influencer who doesn’t know her influence,” even though if you know anything about Emily, it’s that: She has no chill. That the real Emily, newly single and alone in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, would be sad and lonely and obsessing about her numbers, not only curating her picture perfect life while weeping just off camera, but in regular communication with her followers for that hit of human contact, almost goes without saying. But I think this elision—in addition to being an acknowledgment that people looking at their phones on TV is as boring as it is in real life—also describes the level on which the show is working: as an Instagram photo with no edge, where everything at all real—actual Paris, actual Parisians, actual Americans, diversity, emotions—is tantalizingly out of the frame.
To give you a concrete example: Emily starts to almost obsessively include Camille (Camille Razat) in all of her Instagram photos. Camille is the girlfriend of Emily’s crush Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), a dreamy chef and her downstairs neighbor. Frequently including your crush’s girlfriend in your Instagram is a real move, and we see it register on Gabriel in this way: He looks at a picture of Emily and Camille posing together on a gorgeous bed in a Parisian street (it’s a marketing ploy) with, well, it’s hard to tell—some acting hiccups in this here show!—but something like concern. What’s Emily doing? Is she trying to make Gabriel jealous? Trying to prove to herself and Camille everything is great? Trying to get credit on her Insta for being friends with a real French person? Emily’s concrete behavior points to a mess of motives, but they are ones the show has no interest in exploring. In the world of the show, Emily is la-di-dah-ing as she overuses Camille on Insta, probably for the cred, while cracking jokes and not thinking about things too much. The proof that she’s up to something, stirring up drama, keeping her thing with Gabriel alive, is all in the social media account the show treats like a charm bracelet, an uncomplicated and sparkly accessory for girls of a certain age.
Emily in Paris is all slick, polished, aspiration, and yet in such a transparently phony way we can bring to it the level of suspicion and pleasure we bring to Instagram photos and reality TV and prestige reality docs, where we are constantly asking what’s being left out even as we’re being carried along by the story, doomscrolling way past our bedtime. This doubleness—the watching and the questioning, the giggling and the eye-rolling, the pleasure and the disdain, the fascination and the exhaustion, the inside and outside all at once—is a fundamental quality of the hate watch and so much about how we exist in a modern media landscape that’s not specific to TV at all. It also explains why so much critique of this show has hinged on plausibility. It’s a weird lens to consider something as abjectly fanciful as this, but it is a totally normal way to consider social media: How much of this is a put-on?
And Emily in Paris is thrilled to put you on. Its cheerful embrace of social media as nothing but wonderfully shiny turns the whole series into spon-con for the idea of spon-con. At an influencer party, Emily gets slighted by a cosmetics label for only having 20,000 followers, and her response is to show them, by taking scores of pictures with the free swag they gave to her to take pictures with, quite the dramatization of the absence of a concept—in this case “selling out” or some equivalent—from its protagonist’s worldview. “You’re the enemy of luxury because luxury is defined by sophistication and taste, not Emily in Paris,” Sylvie tells Emily, referring to Emily’s Instagram handle. I don’t think you have to be a defender of the high-fashion old guard to hope: Let there be something in between luxury and Emily!
The common wisdom is that Emily in Paris is popular right now because it so deeply not about right now. And yes, it’s not about the virus or social distancing or masks. It’s not about the president or the Supreme Court or voting rights or the election. There are lots of attractive people and petites morts and sitting in cafés drinking wine and minor problems and Paris. But it is about an overconfident American who waltzes into a foreign country, makes no adjustments at all, and with very little finesse, elbows her way into getting what she wants. In this way, it’s kind of like a darker version of Apple TV+’s darling sitcom Ted Lasso, telling a story of an American getting her way by being, basically, super-American. That Emily’s pluck might have its appeal and even register as being out of time, at a time when unearned American overconfidence is as dangerous as it has ever been is understandable: We are American, and loyalties die hard. It’s just another way Emily is showing us a picture of ourselves.