Emily in Paris, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a straight-laced North American marketing executive sent to a sleazy Paris office, was created by Darren Star, who also created Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, and Sex and the City. Star Emily's antagonist is performed by the respected French actress Philippine Leroy-Beaulieau, while Lily Collins is a well-established Hollywood leading lady. Ashley Park, Emily's sidekick, has a Tony nomination.
Without a doubt, this is high-budget, prestige programming for Netflix, and the show is popular. In the month following its debut in 2020, it was watched by 58 million homes and remained in the UK top 10 list for 40 straight days. The third series is likewise projected to have a strong viewership.
Emily in Paris, despite its success, is the show we love to despise. We enjoy it in private, afraid that others will judge us negatively. I have a number of hypotheses as to why many people feel unable to publicly show their affection for it.
Plus ça ändert...
Emily in Paris is a romantic comedy-drama, a genre that has often been criticised for its lack of seriousness and for catering exclusively to female audiences. That hasn't been an issue for the similarly frothy Bridgerton, with whom Emily in Paris has drawn comparisons.
Perhaps Bridgeton avoids the same criticism because it concentrates on female empowerment or because it revitalises the historical romance with methods like color-blind casting and antiquated music. Bridgerton avoids trite and familiar tropes, whereas Emily in Paris trades in clichés - definitely, undeniably, and no doubt on purpose.
The version of Paris seen in the show consisted mostly of tourist highlights (the Eiffel Tower, Café de Flore, Sacré-Coeur), improbably large apartments and suspiciously clean streets … And it was not exactly a considered portrait of the city’s residents, with Parisian characters who leaned heavily into patronising stereotypes. Think rude waiters, lazy, mean-spirited workers and unfaithful men.
But this isn't the first time we've seen a [sanitized view of Paris]. From An American in Paris in 1951 to Amélie in 2001 and beyond, directors on both sides of the Atlantic have used Paris's status as the City of Light to boost box office receipts. More that changes, the more that remains the same - the more something changes, the more that remains the same.
A double Bind
Another opinion is that Emily in Paris has a low self-esteem. That is, it is a splashy, spectacular, American entertainment that despises splash, spectacle, and, most importantly, Americans.
Midwestern Emily is dispatched to Paris when her American corporation purchases Savoir, a French firm, in order to ease the transfer and impose American standards on the Gallic workplace. It's no surprise that her coworkers dislike the new girl in town.
Perhaps more shocking is that we are clearly meant to side with them rather than our brave heroine. The show swiftly establishes a dichotomy between French refinement, quality, and taste and American bravado, naivete, and pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap consumerism.
While the show has been chastised for its overt celebration of consumerism, which clashes with the prevailing atmosphere of the period, it's not Emily's overthought ensembles that we're supposed to aspire to. Rather, it's Sylvie, her bed-headed, chain-smoking tutor, who exudes easy Gallic chic.
Emily's French coworkers refer to her as a jerk. A prominent designer refers to her as ringarde - outmoded, garish, a "basic bitch". That description is not entirely inaccurate. After all, here is a woman who dresses for her first day of work in an Eiffel Tower-embroidered beret and blouse and gleefully admits to not understanding the language.
Emily is, at best, a source of embarrassment. She is, at worst, the walking personification of cultural imperialism. Simply said, Emily has been the villain of her own show for the first two seasons (not to mention some of her questionable moral behaviour).
That began to change at the end of Season 2. Emily's American employer Madeline (acted with wonderful crassness by Kate Walsh) takes over the role of the abroad invader and epitome of all things ringarde and Emily is given the ultimate benediction by Sylvie, who tells her "Emily, you're getting more French by the day".
The show is caught in a predicament because of its continual demonization of Americanness. To adore Emily in Paris would be to love everything the programme urges us to despise. So we must adore it despite its flaws.