Emily in Paris review – an excruciating exorcism of French cliches

Reputedly a comedy drama, the latest from the creator of Sex and the City is little more than an excuse for Lily Collins to espouse the American way

At times, I wondered what the French had done to deserve Emily in Paris (Netflix). This comedy-drama – although it is light on both – is a vehicle for Lily Collins to waltz around Paris in fabulous clothes, refusing to speak French, largely expecting to be seen as adorable for it. If it is a metaphor for American imperialism, then it is an effective one, but if it is an attempt to fluff up the romcom for the streaming age, then it falls over on its six-inch heels.

The titular Emily works for a marketing firm in Chicago, until her boss, who is about to move to Paris, falls pregnant and passes the European transfer on to her underling. The hitch, and season-long running joke, is that Emily does not speak French, though she is convinced that she will survive on her “fake it till you make it” philosophy. Actually, she survives on being cutesy and expecting everyone around her to speak English, without so much as asking if they do.

The action moves to Paris, or at least a comic-book version of it, within four minutes of the series starting. The first half of the season is an exorcism of all of the French cliches the writers could think of, spewed out as if they could not keep them in: the Moulin Rouge, rich women in couture letting their tiny dogs poo on the street, rare steak, chain-smoking, wine for breakfast, men in expensive suits talking freely about sex, decent pastries and a disdain for American culture. Fully deserved, if that is what Emily is supposed to represent. You name a stereotype, and within the first three episodes, Emily has not only encountered it, but tried to rectify it, to adjust it to the American way. Sometimes a supporting character points out that this is bad, but mostly, it just washes past.

Emily is the draw and the problem. There is some tonal confusion as to whether she is a blundering, tactless outsider we are supposed to laugh at, or the everywoman hero we are supposed to identify with. Collins is amiably breezy as a woman who will not let anything stand in the way of rampant capitalism, and she brings a certain smiley charm that is lacking elsewhere. Yet as a character, not only is Emily astonishingly tone-deaf, but she is selfish to the point of amoral; one particular love triangle ends in a way that I think is supposed to be romantic, but feels more like an unforgivable betrayal.

Creator Darren Star is also responsible for Sex and the City (one of the rare campy-funny lines could have come straight from the mouth of Samantha Jones: “Oh my God, I’m petit-mortified,” says Emily, about a loud, broadcast-to-the-building orgasm). Star also made Younger, which touches on a similar corporate world, but with more wit and bite. I think that is because Younger satirises the age-obsessed world of a certain corner of the creative industries, publishing, and does so with teeth. Emily in Paris is relentlessly soft-focus, and seems too in awe of its setting to take the potshots that it needs to.

Inexplicably – although, really, this show is far better if you stop looking for rhyme or reason and just look at the scenery – Emily moves from marketing pharmaceuticals to being the beating heart of luxury fashion and beauty (and also champagne because that’s French, right?), at one of the most established firms in Paris. Her social media knowhow woos a whole army of businessmen who look like David Gandy, and her Instagram account of an American girl nibbling on croissants turns her into a bona fide influencer.

Without the social media angle, this might have been a frothy excuse to simply let the pretty frivolity glide by, but by the end I was ready to throw my phone in the bin and revert to cups on string. Emily is forced to say things such as: “To build a brand you must create meaningful social-media engagement”, and to receive compliments such as: “You’re quite the brand ambassador”, but it turns a world that could be viciously, vicariously fun into one long business meeting. Her supporting cast are all thin to the point of translucent; even Sylvie, the Devil Wears Prada-styled boss, clearly knows that she is better than this.

If there is one thing to say in the show’s favour, it is that it looks great; perhaps because Paris is currently a distant dream. Emily is entirely impractically dressed in every situation, and occasionally there is a line so absurd that I couldn’t help but laugh, even if I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to (“I am a basic bitch with a bag charm”). But Emily in Paris takes a long time to find its acidic streak, and even then, there isn’t nearly enough of it to cut through.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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