Lily Collins flounces around the City of Lights in this pretty and frivolous comedy from Darren Star.
Emily in Paris is an aggressively frivolous show. The new series from creator Darren Star is a travelogue disguised as a comedy starring Lily Collins, who flounces around the City of Lights in a series of increasingly ridiculous midriff-baring ensembles. In any other year, I would’ve made it about 13 minutes into the pilot before slamming my laptop shut with a disdainful harrumph. In 2020, I devoured the entire first season (debuting Friday on Netflix) like a tray of petits fours and remain desperately hungry for more.
Emily Cooper (Collins) is a plucky twenty-something living in Chicago. She has a bland boyfriend named Doug (Roe Hartrampf) and a job at a marketing firm, where she helps come up with social media promotions for pharmaceuticals and geriatric care facilities. For reasons that don’t quite make sense but ultimately don’t really matter, Emily’s firm sends her to Paris for a year to be the “American eyes and ears” at Savoir, a French marking firm her company recently acquired. Never mind that Emily doesn’t speak French. Never mind that she has no experience promoting the types of luxury brands that are on Savoir’s client list. For the purposes of this show, Emily has everything she needs: a bottomless suitcase full of stylish outfits and the wholly unearned confidence of the young and naïve.
On her first day at Savoir, Emily arrives wearing a blouse printed with an image of the Eiffel Tower and chirping greetings through a translation app on her phone. Naturally, everyone hates her. What’s interesting about Emily in Paris is that Star seems to know that his heroine is très annoying — just wait until she tries to explain the “male gaze” to a libidinous French perfumer (William Abadie) — and therefore not the best surrogate for the audience. So he surrounds her with a host of entertainingly refined French co-workers (played by entertainingly refined French actors) who voice their disdain for Emily bluntly and often. “You have no mystery,” sniffs her glamorous boss Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu). “You’re very, very obvious.” An older colleague named Luc (Bruno Gouery) regards the American upstart dismissively, citing “the arrogance of [her] ignorance,” while a legendary French fashion designer (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) takes one look at Emily and shrieks, “Ringard!” (Rough translation: “That’s a basic bitch.”)
Despite the constant derision, Emily remains determined to teach these French olds about the power of social media engagement. Just as Star set Younger in a hallucinatory reality where the publishing industry is rife with high fashion and glamour, here he crafts a world in which Emily’s marketing job is more about party hopping around Paris than assembling PowerPoints. (All 10 episodes were shot on location in France.) This gives our heroine plenty of time for meet-cutes with her dashing downstairs neighbor, Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), and leisurely lunches with her new friend Mindy (Ashley Park), a Chinese expat who drolly guides Emily through her minefield of faux pas. (“You think you’re gonna change the entire French culture by sending back a steak?”) Park, the Tony-nominated breakout from Mean Girls: The Musical, is a breezy, funny delight; she elevates even the cheesiest dialogue (“I’d bon appetit him!”) with her ebullient charisma. When Mindy’s backstory is revealed in episode 6 — no spoilers, but it involves a show called Chinese Popstar and a zipper meme — you’ll wish you were watching Mindy in Paris. (Not too late for a spin-off, Mr. Star!)
That’s not to say that Collins has somehow failed in her role. Emily is written as an irritating go-getter who relentlessly pursues her colleagues’ approval and believes wholeheartedly that she deserves it. If Collins delivered an Emily who was likable — well, that would be a failure. The actress also serves as a vehicle for Emily in Paris’ other leading lady: Patricia Field. The celebrated Sex and the City stylist, along with costume designer Marylin Fitoussi, drape Collins in a cacophony of clashing patterns, crop tops, extremely mini miniskirts, berets and ridiculous bucket hats, monogrammed turtlenecks, and in one particularly horrifying moment, a see-through raincoat that Emily wears… indoors. I don’t know if this is real fashion, but it was fascinating to watch.
In one of his many moments of Emily-centric ennui, Luc offers her these words of wisdom: “Thinking you can escape life is your problem. You can never escape life. Never.” Maybe not, but if you need a five-hour brain vacation, Paris is a worthwhile destination. Grade: B
Emily in Paris season 1 premieres Friday on Netflix