Hannibal Lecter’s words haunted me while I was watching sunny, sudsy Netflix rom-com series Emily in Paris, which follows a beautiful Ugly American (Lily Collins) who lucks into a dream job in the City of Light but still insists on ordering grey steak.
“You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes?” Dr. Lecter snarls in The Silence of the Lambs. “You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste.” From inside his high-security asylum cell, he attacks Agent Starling not exactly for her “poor white trash” origins, but for her naked hunger to rise above and eliminate her past. In contrast, Midwestern social media maven Emily Cooper has no desire to embrace or adapt to the sophistication of her new surroundings. In fact, Americanizing these French snobs is her entire raison d’etre.
Creator Darren Star (Sex and the City, Younger) has a penchant for exploring feminine ambition, though this latest venture isn’t as deep as his earlier work. Emily is a bright-eyed junior marketing exec employed at a Chicago conglomerate that recently acquired a Parisian boutique luxury agency. When her beloved Francophile boss (a disappointingly underutilized Kate Walsh) is no longer able to relocate across the pond to represent the firm, the higher-ups decide to send Emily instead — despite the fact that she can’t speak a word of French.
Plucky, cheerful and arrogant, Emily plops into Paris determined to “bring an American perspective” to French branding, never once considering that her proud cultural ignorance is actually a weakness, not a strength. All who interact with her are forced to speak English. Yet, she firmly believes her superpower is being likeable to everyone.
Emily’s hubris, in fact, was the source of my joy: Across the season, I reveled in watching her fail at almost every turn. Yes, the 20-something eventually prevails in some small way by the end of each half-hour episode, but the road to her success is paved with glass shards. From avoidable linguistic faux pas to frequent social embarrassment, Emily remains a constant victim to her own callow cuteness and monomaniacal drive. There’s no boot she won’t lick, no screw-up she won’t try to spin with a smile.
Still, despite my mean-girl enmity toward the protagonist, Emily in Paris is strikingly watchable, an escapist confection brimming with easily digestible plots, costumes and characters. Turn off your brain and crank up Candy Crush.
When Emily arrives in Paris, she struggles to connect with her new colleagues, though she’s eventually able to win over snide hipster Julien (Samuel Arnold, deliciously peevish) and grizzled eccentric Luc (Bruno Gouery, a comic delight). While she tries to impose her antiseptic corporate American values, her officemates play pranks and call her “la plouc” — “the hick.” Her humbling will trigger jubilant schadenfreude in your dark heart.
Used to nourishing female mentorship, Emily is not prepared for the vitriol spat from new boss Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), a growling grande dame who has no interest in Emily’s socially progressive Instagram campaigns. (Emily often co-opts the modern feminist movement for mentions and indignantly throws around terms like “the female gaze.”) Sylvie is repulsed by the young woman’s brash self-esteem and emotional transparency, but it’s Emily’s prudishness that truly vexes her. For Sylvie, sensuality is a way of life. She openly carries on an affair with a married client and declares she’s “not a feminist.” When Emily gushes over earrings Sylvie’s lover sent to the office, her work buddies inform her they’re actually for the woman’s nipples.
If you’re expecting a Parisian transformation story à la Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada or Billy Ikehorn in Judith Krantz’s Scruples, please note Emily is no mousy waif just waiting to blossom into a chic gamine. She arrives in Paris already a dress-up doll, adorned with cartoonish brunette waves, a bold haute wardrobe and a set of obnoxious woolen berets. She’s stylish and sexy enough to lure six (I counted) love interests across ten episodes.
Emily may not approve of the overt eroticism embroidered into French culture — she’s shocked by cavalier attitudes toward consensual extramarital sex and mortified when a client sends her lingerie — but she’s not sexless. After her nerd-bro American boyfriend breaks up with her, she trifles with various fuckbois, including a teenager whose mother inquires as to whether her son is an adequate sex partner. But through all this, Emily only has eyes for Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), her handsome chef neighbor who rescues her from cold showers, their mean landlady and professional disgrace. Gabriel, though, has a honey-sweet girlfriend, Camille (Camille Razat), who quickly befriends Emily. Merde.
Collins, also a producer on the show, believably pulls off Emily’s uniquely American brattishness, but she doesn’t have quite enough dramatic or comedic presence to carry an entire series all her own. Then again, to be fair, the writers barely provide Emily a history, merely hinting at a soulless suburban Illinois childhood and offering no trace of a family, friends or anything that Emily might actually miss about the United States. Collins thus has little to excavate.
Similarly, poor Broadway star Ashley Park has even less to do here as Emily’s nattering new buddy Mindy, a Chinese heiress and aspiring singer slumming it in Paris after bombing on the Chinese version of American Idol.
Emily comes with little backstory but also little discernible talent. We’re expected to root for her American ingenuity, but every time she whips out her phone and uploads a snapshot with a groaner of a hashtag, I just want to flick her in the forehead. In one egregious scene, while she’s trying to prove her prowess as an influencer at a cosmetics event, Emily plucks a strawberry off some décor, holds her phone up to her face, and robotically recites, “Durée is smudge-proof, even when you’re berry hungry.” She takes a bite. The script writers then have the nerve to show the event organizers watching her video, fawning, “I like her. She’s clever!”
Star and company are aware Emily may grate on viewers. “Don’t you want to see the hero win?” she cheeps during a discussion with her co-workers about movies. “No,” Luc utters. “I want to see life.” Same here, mon frère: Bring on the petty humiliations.
Cast: Lily Collins, Lucas Bravo, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, Ashley Park, Bruno Gouery, Samuel Arnold, Camille Razat
Creator: Darren Star