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October 24, 2020

Problematic but addictive, Emily in Paris has its gateau and eats it too

By AMELIA ISAACS | October 16, 2020

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COURTESY OF KATY WILNER

Largely set in the heart of Paris, the new Netflix show captures the beauty of its landmarks. 

Emily in Paris is Netflix’s latest top 10 easy watch. At just 10 episodes, each under half an hour long, you would be far from alone if you watched the whole series in under a day. The show focuses on Emily Cooper (Lily Collins) who is sent by her marketing firm in Chicago to be the “American perspective” at the company’s office in Paris after her boss discovers that she’s pregnant and can’t go herself. 

In all-American fashion, Emily arrives in Paris unable to speak a word of French but more than ready to show anyone and everyone the “correct” way to do things. Shockingly, Emily’s co-workers do not take too well to this. To make matters worse, her immediate efforts to assimilate consist solely of a large collection of berets and an Eiffel Tower bag charm, far from ideal for her new job in the world of luxury fashion and goods. From her disapproval of the French culture to a slew of workplace commandments, she is overflowing with confidence for a twentysomething with a background in pharmaceuticals, a communications degree and just 48 Instagram followers.

In a quasi-copy of The Devil Wears Prada, now set across the Atlantic, Emily has to grapple with an assertive boss she desperately wants to win over (whose love life, like Miranda Priestly’s, is on the rocks) and wonderfully witty co-workers who tease and challenge her (not so lovingly calling her la plouc) but ultimately help her to survive. Unlike in the 2006 movie, Emily is also blessed with both an American guide/new best friend Mindy (Broadway’s own Ashley Park), as well as a number of attractive and kind French friends, including her neighbor Gabriel (Lucas Bravo). 

It is hard to find fault with the supporting characters in Emily’s life. They are surprisingly well-rounded and funny and put up with a lot from the titular character. They poke fun at her at times, challenge her “flamboyant” American attitude and most importantly share our embarrassment when she tries to force her American ways on the unsuspecting French public. When Emily tries to send back her food at a restaurant in the second episode, suggesting to the waiter that she could teach the chef about customer service, Mindy blisteringly offers to swap meals, asking Emily whether she thinks she’s going to “change the entire French culture by sending back a steak.”

This entitlement runs through the series in a way that makes it unclear whether we are meant to relate to Emily and the way she awkwardly falls into her new life or cringe at her actions and question her privilege. The show seems unable to decide. It acknowledges that she is ringarde — the French equivalent for “basic” — almost excessively. At times she makes fun of herself, but somehow in every situation she either miraculously comes up with the perfect marketing campaign or otherwise makes her way through with what we’re somehow meant to believe is endearing American naiveté. 

Emily also has men falling at her feet and, spoiler alert, sleeps with her one French friend’s underage brother and ex-boyfriend. The latter should be bad enough, especially as she kisses him multiple times before the couple breaks up, in one instance fully aware that they are together. However, the former is so much worse and somehow is dismissed as typical French behavior, with the boy’s mom even asking Emily about how he performed. To describe this as problematic doesn’t feel like enough, but the show doesn’t even do that.

Despite Sex and the City’s Darren Star and his writing team spending time in Paris before and while writing and creating the show, it feels at times as though it was written by people who have never actually experienced life in France. While it would be impossible to capture an entire city in a single series, the show takes an entirely singular view of both the city and the country, and this is not just because we see it through the eyes of an American tourist.

In spite of all these flaws — underage sex aside — the show is strangely addictive. Regardless of how much you might want to critique the show, which would be entirely justified, it is very easy to watch. This might be in part because everyone is still in a phase of lockdown boredom that can only be filled by series after series. But it is also definitely in part because the show puts everything we cannot have right now at the forefront. 

The show’s building blocks are gorgeous, impractical costumes, courtesy of Patricia Field, stunning shots of Paris and Champagne (both the place and the drink) and attractive people having fun, quite often in groups of more than 10 and very much not six feet apart. In a time when we have no reason to dress up, no possibility of going anywhere and no real way of experiencing new people or things, Emily in Paris allows us to vicariously experience all of the above and more. And with Emmanuel Macron’s newly instated curfew, the show depicts scenes that just couldn’t happen in 2020, even for Parisians. 

If you want to watch the show and just enjoy how pretty the scenes are and how ridiculous the plot is, it can provide a good few hours of light-hearted relief from the world. And even if you want to view the show through a critical lens, so many people have watched it that I guarantee you’ll find one friend with whom you can discuss the show’s many flaws, which will be almost as enjoyable as actually watching the show.

Either way, it’s difficult not to just sit and take in the whole series once you’ve made your way through the first few episodes. And once you’re done, there is a whole world of memes to delve through while you wait for the next season to air. I definitely recommend Emily in Paris to anyone who seeks a new and fresh show. 

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