This show is not meant for me. I understand that. Here at OnlySky, our editors are kind enough to give us a wide purview when it comes to review topics. I could choose to watch the most recent film and TV shows that I know would suit my tastes.
That is not my role as a critic.
I must interact with broader pop culture and step out of my comfort zone. I am not an arbiter of taste, but I must be a taste-tester with a wide palate. And when something is globally popular, my aim should be to dissect that, and see why.
It would be disingenuous to say that I went into my review of Emily in Paris, season 2 not knowing the discourse around it. I saw the trailers. I heard the gossip. This is not something I would normally watch. But it’s one of the most-watched shows on the largest streaming service in the world. I wanted to give it a real shot.
I had a clear methodology to strip me of my bias. I watched a large portion of the show on a flight I took during the holidays. Usually when I watch movies and TV on an airplane, they affect me more emotionally. I was also feeling the after-effects of my booster shot. When I watch movies while under the weather, they affect me more emotionally. Once, while sick with a stomach flu, I wept openly during Ang Lee’s Hulk.
All that to say, I really tried to give this show a chance.
Emily in Paris revolves around an American social media manager who moves from Chicago to Paris to work for a fashion company that has been acquired. This is where the trouble started. Despite her job, Emily starts off the show with fewer than 50 followers. It turns out that Emily does not know French. She eventually starts to learn in season 2, but only in the sense that I have learned how drive a car by watching The Fast and the Furious. She meets every chiseled, attractive man in Paris. She works hard, according to the characters, but we almost never see her working. Her ideas for the company are like the comments section on a YouTube video, expressed with supreme confidence without any nuance or experience.
Yet she never fails.
To say I despised this show suggests that I was in control of my own senses. I have been told by friends that this is an easy to show to “have on in the background.” That was not my experience. This show demanded I witness what it was perpetrating. I would have rather blasted Penderecki’s Threnody in the background. By the end, my brain was trying to eat my eyeballs from within my skull.
It got to a point where, in order to continue watching the show, imagined it was created by an A.I. in order to satisfy every market need and story beat present within a rom-com.
This made the experience far more pleasurable. I strongly recommend this strategy.
To extend my thought experiment, I broke down the parameters that I believe must have been given to the A.I. as it compiled this show:
- Low Stakes
- Characters of color who only serve the protagonist
- Emily always wins
- Learn nothing
- Scenes must end after two minutes
- Boy trouble
After watching the show with these fixed parameters in mind, I was impressed. Therefore, for the rest of this piece, I will review this show as if it were indeed developed by an A.I.
A machine put together a very coherent, if entirely forgettable, storyline. A machine competently edited together a series of scenes and stitched them together with what appears to be stock footage of Paris through the eyes of a hobby drone. A machine directed the actors. That is why the performances seem uncomfortable, with long, gaping silences, where the soundtrack must loudly and plainly tell you “a laugh is now required.” If this is the product that an A.I. can produce, then we no longer require the monkeys and typewriters metaphor. The algorithm has solved art.
Of course, you cannot expect machine learning to pick up on the subtle nuances of humor. That’s why at no point in this show is there a laugh-worthy moment. It’s why the characters don’t feel satisfying. When you’re only viewing a human being’s life as progressive beats that lead to a structured conclusion as defined by the half-hour sitcom, things like personality become blurry. What are stakes to a machine? It has no comprehension of feeling or emotion. Neither does Emily in Paris.
But, unfortunately, as we have discovered with A.I., it bears some of the harmful biases of its creators.
Throughout the entire show, Emily bounces from one love interest to another. All of them are white. In season 2, Emily does find a love interest of color. It’s an improvement over the first season’s zero.
I do not choose to give the show credit for this.
Every major, predominantly white-focused romantic comedy show has featured a single love interest of color for the dual reasons of “spicing it up” and “proving that you’re inclusive.” Friends had Aisha Tyler. Sex and the City had Chivon. It does not solve the show’s race issue.
Because Alfie, the love interest Emily meets through her French class, is not French. Some may say it makes sense given that they both need to be learning French in order for them to meet. I am disinterested in this argument. The show does not do such plot acrobatics for any of Emily’s other love interests.
I believe the reason the show does not want Emily to meet a person of color who is French, is because, in Paris, that person would likely have to be of African or North African descent.
Emily in Paris is happy to allow her to date one single non-white male. But he must be British, because British indicates sophistication. Class. For her to date someone Parisian, but also of color, is not, in the show’s vernacular, “sophisticated”. Never mind that there are two handsome, charming Parisian actors of color who lead huge Netflix hits (Omar Sy and Tahar Rahim). The show is about rich, sophisticated people having a pleasant time. It’s not about even interacting with the vast migrant population that makes up a huge portion of Paris.
In The Simpsons, a “beautify Springfield” project shows a wave of progress sweeping over the city. It turns ugly people beautiful, broken down cars into Lambos, and the homeless into mailboxes. Emily in Paris accomplishes the same feat over the course of an entire season without being in on the joke.
I do not mind flight-of-fancy shows with low stakes. One of my favorite shows is Frasier, which seems to exist only to allow Dr. Frasier Crane to sleep with impossibly beautiful women while sipping sherry. It’s okay to have a vacation show where your mind turns off and you wander through a daydream.
And it’s also okay for this to be a white woman’s fantasy. There is nothing wrong with catering to a female, predominantly white, audience. It’s also entirely possible, given the wide reach of this show, that many women of color also enjoy Emily in Paris. That’s fine. It shows a working woman having the time of her life and only succeeding. Life is complex. Emily in Paris is not. It’s just a fantasy.
What hurts the most is what that fantasy actually looks like. A culturally diverse Paris, with its huge African population, does not exist in this fantastical world. In this fantasy, the people of color are the sassy best friends, or the single, gorgeous exceptions that prove the rule.
Criticism around this show has worked itself into knots trying to make sense of why this show has become popular. The negative takes have given way to “this show is a rousing screed against good taste in the best possible way” and “I hate it but I can’t stop watching”. In my opinion, it’s a much simpler issue. You can have low stakes, but it’d be nice if it was funny. You can have characters that never change, but they should be interesting. Emily in Paris is neither.
I only wish that the parameters that the A.I. that created this show had been a little freer, allowing room for the weird and abstract and unique. Even a simple bot can write a fairly interesting sitcom plot. There are other kitschy, “trashy” female-focused fantasies on Netflix like the impossibly interesting A Christmas Prince. In that movie, a woman shows that she’s “quirky” because she wears Chucks. It’s great.
Darren Star, the creator of this A.I., wrote one of the stupidest and most fun action films of the 90s, If Looks Could Kill. Andrew Fleming, one of the show’s directors, did both The Craft and Hamlet 2. If only more of the creators’ inspiration had filtered down to their mechanical task machine, we might have had something weird and interesting.
Instead, we have one of the most popular shows in the world.