Emily in Paris is cliched and annoying, but of course I watched it all

Emily in Paris is cliched and annoying, but of course I watched it all

10/10/2020

The new Netflix hit series Emily in Paris is the most annoying thing I have watched on television for some time – and that's saying something given I also covered the Polish softcore porn film we sent trending a few months ago.

The set-up unfolds so fast you'd miss it if you blinked. A young woman is transferred for a year from Chicago to Paris where she attempts to school a luxury French marketing firm in social media and pretty much everything else about the world.

A portrait of arrogance and ignorance, Emily does not speak French, moves into the ritzy 5th arrondissement, dons a beret and a bucket hat without irony and declares to her new colleagues: "Your language is seriously effed up."

Emily, as Lily Collins, sent to give the French the “American perspective” they definitely don’t want or need.Credit:Netflix

Paris is a place where fresh flower purchases match the colour of your coat, Instagram allows punctuation in hashtags and a lace crop top constitutes athletic wear. The French are snobby, slouchy, skinny smokers who love soirees and seduction. Emily in Paris feels like it should crumble under the weight of all that cliche and all that sparkle. And yet. I hated it; I also watched all of it.

To be fair, I have a few berets in the suitcase that made me more resistant to the show’s hammy, rom-com charm. I lived out the series that Netflix hasn't yet picked up – the one where Melanie moves to Paris for a year in February, experiences a lot more lockdown than love and lights, and after a month returns to Australia to parents who insist she should move back in with them ("You won't even know we're there!")

Netflix says Emily in Paris has spent five days as one of the top 10 shows in Australia and four of those in the No.1 spot, not just for a series but across all titles. So why are we craving these empty calories when we have so many ripe alternatives, including watching a man become best friends with an actual cephalopod in the documentary My Octopus Teacher?

Made by Darren Star, who also created Younger and Sex and the City, part of the appeal must lie in Patricia Fields' beautiful costumes and the snackable episodes that are easy on the eye and easy to escape into. At a time when we can't leave the country there's also some comfort in knowing that at least, as Humphrey Bogart says in the dramatic final scene of Casablanca:"We'll always have Paris."

Emily living her best croissant-eating life.Credit:Netflix

TV critic Debi Enker says the show is stock standard for Star, who is known for his slick, glossy shows that feature covetable fashion and enviable real-estate.

"This rom-com uses Paris as a glittering backdrop for a culture-clash tale in which the keen, wide-eyed, social-media savvy American has a lot to teach the uppity Frenchies. Merde. It's like a souffle, light and fluffy, with not a great deal of substance," Enker says.

Emily perkily tells her French colleagues her role is "to give the American perspective", which serves as a useful guide to understanding the entire show. Her character's understanding of Paris – and the show itself – is a palimpsest of how the city has long been imagined in American culture.

When she first arrives in Paris, Emily says she feels like "Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge" and that the "entire city looks like Ratatouille". When her neighbour tells her he comes from Normandy she responds, "oh, I know that beach, Saving Private Ryan."

Who needs to speak French in France?Credit:Netflix

The idealisation of Paris and French culture, and the trope of an American in Paris, is not new. French theorist Roland Barthes showed how mythologies reveal more about the society that created them than the subject of the mythology itself and in Emily in Paris, we're offered an American vision of Paris, specifically a very white, very wealthy American vision. But could the show be self-aware?

Dr Clara Sitbon, a French studies lecturer at the University of Sydney, doesn't think so.

"For this particular slice of America, Paris is a city where people are always late, where there is no graffiti, where there is not much multiculturalism, where everyone is mean. It is a very limited version," Dr Sitbon says.

"When I watched the first episode, I thought, okay I think we have to put it into the perspective of Australia has its borders shut, the romanticisation of Paris is some form of escapism, people don't really want to have to face whatever it is they're facing. I don't see any other explanation about why this show would be number one."

Emily wears a bucket hat with a complete lack of irony.Credit:Neflix

The French have been far more realistic than romantic about the show, tending towards ridicule. But Australian journalist Annabel Ross, who moved to Paris in 2017, says despite all the kitsch there were elements she found reflected her real experience.

"It's so silly but I am also really enjoying it," Ross says. "As someone who's living in the US now and who finds their friendliness so refreshing by comparison, I don't find [Emily] annoying at all.

"If Emily feels like an outcast you can imagine what an Australian woman most definitely not styled by Patricia Field felt like. I can very much relate, except for the glamorous lifestyle, of course. At least she has that! Cliches are cliches for a reason."

Perhaps I'll be able to relate to the second season more. The season in which Emily has to navigate global freight and Australian customs to get all those suitcases full of beautiful clothes home after the coronavirus hits and destroys her illusions. C'est la vie.

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