This show is not for amateurs. Like, if you mostly stick to “prestige television” or you have ever uttered the phrase, “I just don’t have time for watching TV,” then you may not be ready for Emily in Paris. That’s right. I said not ready. Let me explain. I feel this is a series specifically for those of us who can simultaneously rail about how bad parts of it are and also feel like our current life’s purpose is to watch the entire show. I personally will howl with displeasure if it’s not immediately renewed for a second season, and I also have a very long list of terrible things about it that I cannot WAIT to regale you with. Look, it’s like a meditative state you can achieve where scorn is balanced with pleasure, derision with appreciation. If you’re not already well practiced in this kind of watching, you can’t just dive headfirst into a show like Emily in Paris. That would be the television watching equivalent of joining a monastery after following along with one Instagram video on mindfulness posted by a 20-year-old wellness influencer. I’m not saying that you can never attain this higher state of television watching. It’s just that you might need to work up to it gradually, you know? But I have absolute faith that eventually, if you really commit yourself, you’ll get there. Don’t give up!
When we meet Emily (Lilly Collins), she’s working as a marketing something-or-other at the Gilbert Group in Chicago, which has just acquired a small French boutique marketing firm that specializes in luxury goods. Emily’s boss (Kate Walsh) is about to fulfill a lifetime dream of moving to Paris and becoming their Director of Marketing, but then, at the last minute, she finds out she’s pregnant and decides not to go. Of course the job then goes to inexperienced Emily, who chooses to give her boyfriend the news that she’ll be moving to France for a year while he’s watching a baseball game in a loud sports bar. (A sports bar where she orders a glass of wine. “Anything French,” she says with a wave of her hand.)
We are at this point but a scant three minutes into Emily’s journey, and I have already nearly caused myself permanent eye damage by rolling them so hard and possibly ruptured something in my sinuses from snorting so violently. First, but not most important, what savvy American woman thinks she can order ANY wine at a sports bar—let alone a French one—that doesn’t just taste of fermented regrets? I know it’s a tiny thing, but it’s such a foreshadowing of how this series is going to play out and of how it will frustrate me. Anyway, back to bigger issues. There are approximately a million and one ways to create a scenario in which Emily ends up going to Paris instead of her boss, but they decided to go with the one that involves her reproductive system. Why?!? Obviously, Kate Walsh’s character (who is very much a single woman) could have chosen to end the pregnancy and then gone to Paris. What?!? Yes, I know, even though the whole women having agency over their own body makes some people squeamish, it is actually a valid option. Or, she could have gone to Paris and—hear me out here while I blow your mind—worked while pregnant. I know! Wild! It’s a new thing women are trying. And then she could have even taken advantage of France’s sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave. But, again, why pull her uterus into this hot mess at all? Why not a well-timed car accident? So tragic and opportune! A last-minute head hunting by another firm? So unexpected and opportune! An alien abduction? So cross-genre and opportune!
But none of that happens. What happens is that her boss stays home and somehow Emily, who has neither the experience nor the language skills, goes to Paris as the “American eyes and ears to help with the whole transition.” It makes her sound like she’s going to participate in corporate espionage when really she’s just going to participate in plucky mediocrity passed off as genius. Ah, the true American values. She arrives in the city via a taxi ride that miraculously takes her past every major monument in Paris.
Before she even gets into her apartment, we begin what will be a pretty endless stream of stereotypical moments. She is shocked (SHOCKED) by the way they count floors, that is the ground floor being the ground floor and not the first floor. She’s verging on offended, which seems like maaaaybe the wrong tone for an American to take in this current climate (or really, at any time in the history of civilization).
Anyway, soon after conquering this first shock to her cultural system, she heads to the office where no one has been informed of the whole switcheroo and they’re all very displeased that she can’t speak French and that she’s so peppy. Emily is treacly sweet, overly cheerful (I have never seen so many teeth in my life), and oh-so-arrogant. Her goal to bring social media (which she points out was invented by Americans) to France is obnoxiously out of touch and kind of gauche. The worst part is that Emily doesn’t grow or change. I mean, you could excuse some of this in the show if she ultimately reckoned with her own shortcomings and saw her ignorance as a liability. Instead she digs in her incredibly tall stilettos (my feet literally ache watching her march across cobblestone streets in those torture chambers) and doubles down on her exceptionalism. Worse yet, the show condones her bad instincts by making it appear that every luxury brand and every man in Paris is perfectly smitten with her basicness.
Sometimes I try to imagine what Emily in Paris would be like without Emily. Better, maybe? Or, at the very least, it could be better if it weren’t so laser-focused on Emily’s escapades. At some point Emily calls out a client for using the Male Gaze, but I’d like to call out this show for only using the Emily Gaze. Her French coworkers have all the potential to be interesting people if they weren’t constantly being used as props in Emily’s life. Let’s take Julien (Samuel Arnold), a gay Black man who first scorns Emily and then becomes her support and main source of gossip, which is, you know, problematical in and of itself. The actor brings so much to the cardboard cutout of a role, and, with better writing, Julien could be so interesting.
Or Luc (Bruno Gouery), who initially has so much potential to be someone who sets Emily straight, but then just ends up being a kind of smarmy guy who makes inappropriate comments about Emily’s body. Or Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), Emily’s boss, who has all the elements of a snarky older woman who could eventually take Emily under wing, but instead she only gets to be jealous of Emily’s youth and her endless string of ideas that occur to her magically and always work out perfectly. (They are actually kinda mediocre ideas.)
After Emily’s first day of work she calls her boyfriend at home to tell him “the entire city looks like Ratatouille.” Like. Ratatouille. LIKE RATATOUILLE!! You see why this show is not for amateurs now, right? I spent far too much time trying to decide if it was meant to be ironic. I still don’t know. Then she goes home to her apartment where she huffs and puffs up the stairs and mistakenly tries to stick her key into the lock of the fourth floor apartment (double entendre kind of intended) only to find the door opened by a man with a very Genetically Blessed Face™ who is named Gabriel (Lucas Bravo). I have zero complaints about his face, but I don’t know that they had to put quite so much work into making this meet-cute happen.
Emily will make the mistake about the floors at least one more time, at which point I may have yelled for her to tie a frickin’ ribbon on her doorknob so she stops forgetting on which floor she left it!! Anyway, of course they are immediately attracted to each other, but she has a boyfriend (though he will soon enough dump her) and (as we’ll later find out) Gabriel is also unavailable. They will spend time almost getting together before having to tear themselves apart. Meanwhile, Emily will have other affairs while managing to solve all the social media problems in France for everyone from haute couture designers to American hotel chains to perfume makers to mom and pop champagne makers AND getting thousands of new followers on her personal account just by posting boring photos with blah captions. There will be less than zero surprises plot wise in this series, which is not actually one of my many and sundry complaints.
What are some of my other complaints? Well, I’m so glad you asked because there is so damn much! As I mentioned before, the fact that Emily is so proud of her ignorance. At one point her boss Sylvie says, “You come to Paris, you walk into my office, you don’t even bother to learn the language, you treat the city like it’s your amusement park, and after a year of food, sex, wine, and maybe some culture, you’ll go back from whence you came.” Friends, I stood up and cheered (in my mind, at least), but Emily doesn’t even respond, she just walks away and keeps assuming Sylvie just needs more time to warm up to her. It’s maddening.
And look, I respect that it’s damn hard to learn a new language. I’m not saying she should magically speak French, but Emily has all the opportunities to make an effort with the language and she takes advantage of none of them. The show leans hard into stereotypes and trite cultural misunderstandings, which really only serve to make Emily seem like more of a self-centered jerk. For example, Emily shows up for her first day of work at 8:30am, but is locked out until 10am when everyone else shows up. Why wouldn’t she have asked when the workday started? This would be normal in any job, let alone in another country. Emily makes a reservation at a restaurant and then is incensed to find out that they do the dates “backwards.” She’s been in the country working and living and she didn’t notice that the day comes before the month? And even if she momentarily forgot, wouldn’t the only possible response be to feel silly for getting it wrong instead of glaring at the maître d’?
Emily schools all of Paris (a slight exaggeration) on sexism, but then says absolutely nothing when a man explains that he gave her lingerie not to hit on her, but to empower her to feel sexy. Excuse me, what?!? Emily, who always initiates conversations in English, launches a campaign for vaginal lubricant for menopausal women by calling out the fact that Vagina is a male noun in French. “The vagina isn’t male,” it reads (or something like that). It’s kind of like Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” for the vag, which is more of a pun than it sounded in my head. Emily has fixed all the patriarchal underpinnings of an entire romance language in one social media post!! And speaking of sexy, one of my favorite moments to hate is when Emily manages to blow the fuse for her entire apartment building by plugging in her vibrator. At first I thought there must have been a time machine I missed that took her back to 1980-something when it would have made sense for a woman to carry around a baseball bat sized vibrator that required a voltage converter. Then I decided that this must be a family heirloom, sanitized and passed down from generation to generation. It’s the only logical explanation. I hope she was able to get the vibrator repaired so that in 15 seasons we can see her pass it down to her French-speaking daughter.
At this point you may be wondering what I actually like about the show. Which, fair enough. After several days of updating my husband on the latest installment of Emily’s Cultural Horror Show, he too wondered why I even bothered to keep watching. I mostly waved my hands vaguely in response to him and then went to bed, but for you, dear reader, I will try to do better. I think that the show has good bones (and I’m not just talking about the bone structure of the many attractive men on it). The story of a young woman going solo to a new place where she has to find her own way and along the way stumbles into romance is pretty much a timeless classic. The acting is not bad, which I realize doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but not all performances need to be Oscar-worthy to work. And these are just fine for this kind of series. When you strip away the constant stereotyping and the contrived culture clashes, the storylines are bright, light, sometimes funny, and compelling enough. The scenery does not suck because, as the characters remind us ad-frickin’-nauseum, Paris is a beautiful city. Even I cannot deny that Emily’s determined spirit kind of grew on me, and even though the rest of the characters don’t get a chance to really have their own subplots, they’re also fun to watch. And finally, as the great Lily Tomlin may have once said, “Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.” And boy oh boy do I love a show that I can enjoy while also having plenty to complain about.
And if you watch Emily in Paris, please, please let me know which parts (no one can have just one) are your favorites to complain about and which parts made it work for you!
But look, if you feel like you’re not up to the challenge of Emily in Paris quite yet—which, again, there is no shame in that because we’re all on our own journeys here—but are still hankering for a show set in Paris, might I recommend Plan Coeur (The Hookup Plan)? It’s about a woman named Elsa who is still hung up on her awful ex-boyfriend, so her friends conspire to hire an extremely handsome escort to help jolt her out of the funk. It’s sweet and funny and also has good bones (and this time I am talking about a man’s face).