When the “Sex and the City” phenomenon hit in 1998 it bypassed me completely, mostly because I was too young. But I certainly felt its fall-out as the Darren Star-created series would inspire dozens upon dozens of other shows focused on young, white women of upper-class backgrounds living life and looking fierce while doing it (looking at you, “Gossip Girl.”)
But since the series ended in 2004 those who once dreamed of having Carrie Bradshaw’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) life are realizing it wasn’t a bed of roses. The show’s been criticized for its lack of racial diversity, despite being set in New York, as well as its dated depictions of the queer community. It’s a series of traits that have followed Star onto his other projects, including his most recent success “Younger,” which has also been critiqued for lacking characters of color. This is all to say watching his latest show, Netflix’s bubble-gum confection “Emily in Paris,” is enough to take you back to 1998, and all the problems that implies.
Lily Collins plays the eponymous Emily, a Chicago native sent to work in France when her old boss, played by a criminally wasted Kate Walsh, gets pregnant. (Walsh is 53 but this show treats her pregnancy like she’s been blessed by Christ himself because she’s. so. old.) Despite having no French experience Emily gamely goes and becomes the American marketing specialist for the luxury brand Savoir, run by the tyrannical Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu).
“Emily in Paris” is certainly a beautiful series. The locations are beautiful; the fashion is beautiful; nearly every single member of the cast is beautiful. It’s a fairytale in the same way that “Sex and the City” was, presenting Paris as a land of calorie-free croissants, a luxurious apartment in every tax bracket, and a sexually proficient man in every bed. Emily’s ideas are considered simultaneously shocking, laughable, and gauche, an example of the culture clash between Americans and the French. She condemns workplace romances, l’horreur! She uses Instagram, choquante!
To be fair, for all of Emily’s Americanized wide-eyed pep the French match her in their chain-smoking, disaffected dislike of everything associated with her. The series attempts to show both points of view, like when Emily brings up how a perfume ad could be perceived as sexist, only to have her boss and the client, the smooth-talking Antoine (William Abadie) tell her the morality police is out to get them. There’s something intriguing in how France, especially, has responded in the wake of #MeToo but the series never gets too bogged down in it, instead emphasizing that nearly all Frenchmen are totally respectable horndogs. I mean, if a client buys a young female employee lingerie she has no reason to get bent out of shape, right?
Then there’s Emily herself. Collins is a jewel, make no mistake, and “Emily in Paris” is only as watchable and frivolous as its leading lady. She commands the screen, has great wit and comedic timing, and looks like a snack in everything she wears. If anything, this series proves Collins is a star. That being said, the character is written to be as complex as a slice of cake. All the audience learns about Emily over 10 episodes is she’s from Chicago, she broke up with her boyfriend, and she allegedly led a very bland and boring existence between arriving in Paris. Of course, she had impeccable fashion sense and looked like a model in scenes set in Chicago but just go with the fact that she was a total Plain Jane.
And that constant need to repeat that Emily is “just folks” never works. Especially not when she has no financial problems, is drop-dead gorgeous, and doesn’t seem to just rent the runway but flat-out owns it. Her only real problems in the series are deciding which man to sleep with, while reminding the audience she’s not “that kind of girl,” and how to get Sylvie to like her.
One episode sees Emily called the French equivalent of a “basic bitch” by a designer, leading to the hokiest of speeches about how “basic bitches” like Emily are the core of fashion. Sorry, but only on a television show would someone think Collins is basic. And because this series wants to emulate “Sex and the City” so much, Emily also gets her Mr. Big equivalent in kindhearted Parisian chef, Gabriel (Lucas Bravo looking like the French Armie Hammer), with their love triangle involving Gabriel’s girlfriend providing the central crux of the series.
There’s also a dated, “hello there, fellow kids” sentiment to the series that’s hard to shake. There’s never an outright discussion of generational clash, instead presented throughout outright ageism. Walsh’s pregnancy conceit aside, the folks at Savoir live in a social-media free bubble until Emily arrives bearing Instagram. Even Emily herself seems a bit backward with the technological age, stumbling into being an influencer only once she starts taking pictures of herself. For a marketing consultant, and a twentysomething woman living in America, it’s hilarious to think she hasn’t ever thought of herself as a brand.
The biggest improvement this series could make is with regards to queer or racial diversity and…it still thinks it’s doing something? Ashley Park is a straight-up scenestealer as Mindy Chen, heiress to a Chinese zipper factory — I guess “Crazy Rich Asians” is the only theme for Asian representation now — who is now a nanny in Paris. Outside of being hilariously funny and charming, Mindy’s story also has heart to it as she wants to be a singer but is terrified after going viral during a horrific “Chinese PopStar” audition. Honestly, this series could have just focused on Park alone, and it would have been amazing.
Outside of that the only other person of color that is anything passing for a real character is Emily’s gay co-worker Julien (Samuel Arnold). Unfortunately, Julien is a character written direct from the gay best friend playbook: catty and always quick with a retort. He’s a throwback to the lisping, effeminate queer characters of the ’90s and it’s a pretty bad look despite Arnold trying his hardest. On top of that, as the lone Black character, he’s given absolutely no backstory other than working at Savoir. For all we know, he lives in the office and is continually interrupted by his white coworkers.
It’s strange, but “Emily in Paris” is like scrolling through Instagram. It’s a great way to waste time looking at pretty pictures with no depth, taken by beautiful people with the ability to do and call it a job. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’ll be for you. If you’re thinking this is the second coming of “Sex and the City,” sorry, no dice. Collins and Park are really good though — someone sign them up for something that doesn’t involve macrons.
“Emily in Paris” starts streaming on Netflix Friday, October 2.