Emily in Paris: Postcards with No Edge
The difference between characters and archetypes is where this show lives.
Love is pain. This universal truth is proved to me on a regular basis as my wife, a powerful sorceress, forces me to watch truly terrible television. One such example is Netflix’s Emily in Paris, a show about a young woman (Lily Collins) who finagles a one-year assignment1 to work in the Paris office of her PR firm despite not speaking French2 or being in any way a serious person. The show is basically an excuse for Collins to wear a series of colorful outfits3 while traipsing about the usual Paris settings: Cobblestone streets, outdoor cafes, ornate parks4.
In other words, the show is also not a serious person5. It assiduously avoids the areas of Parisian life that might not be ideal or pictaresque, and in fact doesn’t even acknowledge that such areas might exist (aside from a few lines of dialog in the second season). Emily lives the sort of charmed life embraced by romantic comedies: Her problems are not really problems, she fails upward at a steady pace6, and even when her behavior is not dissimilar from a psychopath’s the show proceeds as if we all agree she is far too charming to ever be considered evil.
And that’s all fine, because this isn’t a serious show. It presents the sort of life a lot of people vaguely gesture at, a kind of perpetual professional vacation7. It presents a foreign culture as obviously and inherently superior to our own, then proceeds to treat that culture like a theme park, which weirdly proves our cultural inferiority. But the show has achieved a Platonic ideal of a frictionless entertainment that can be consumed, enjoyed, and forgotten all in the same second8.
And hey, we need shows like this (or, some of us need shows like this, while others of us need similarly frictionless shows in other genres, like Doctor Who). What’s interesting about Emily in Paris is how it achieves this almost supernatural lack of edge: Every aspect of it deals in archetypes, from its setting to its characters. It’s archetypes all the way down.
Éloigne-toi de Moi, Chien de Bourgeois
Character as archetype occurs when you create characters that personify a concept more than an actual person, and then forget to add any real depth to them as people so they walk around as animated symbols. Emily in Paris is a show that’s pretty much all archetypes. Emily herself is an archtypical caricature of an American—attractive, cheerfully stupid, rife with terrible taste, and yet somehow charming enough to get by9 (Emily also parallels America’s outsize influence, because she represents the American company that has bought the French firm she’s working in). That description of Emily is literally all you will ever know about her. She has no hopes or dreams, she has no politics or conflicts of interest. One imagines her sitting in darkened rooms in total silence until someone walks in to activate her.
This applies to every other character, all of whom can be summed up in one very brief sentence: The chef obsessed with food, the very French boss who smokes and has affairs, the cheerful rich girl on the run from her family, the innocent best friend Emily betrays, the flamboyant fashion designer, the churlish English expat in Paris against his will—none of these characters has any sort of interiority. The handsome chef is ... a handsome chef. He falls in love with Emily and all he does is discuss food and how much he likes her. That’s it. That’s the character. He has, apparently, zero other thoughts or desires. His ideal life apparently involves cooking 18 hours a day while Emily models various garish outfits for him10.
Even the city of Paris is an archetype in the show. There’s no sense of actually being in Paris, which is a quite a trick for a show literally filmed in Paris. The show primarily wobbles between just a few locations, all pretty much what someone who has never been to Paris would imagine Paris to be like: A charming restaurant, a chic office, various expensive-looking residences, and some famous landmarks. We’re told over and over again how romantic and wonderful Paris is, but we never actually see anything all that great outside of a few nice shots of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. There is no sense of Paris whatsoever—just the idea of Paris as somehow transformative and exciting simply because it’s not in America11.
The Permanent Vacation
Now, it might seem like I’m deconstructing why Emily in Paris is a bad show or a failed story because it’s basically a Jenga Tower of archetypes and changeless homonculi, but that’s actually why the show works. That’s the appeal, friendos. Emily in Paris is a story in vacation mode—it is, in other words, the ultimate escapist fantasy precisely because nothing that happens on the show matters at all. The characters, setting, and circumstances are presented as totally unchangeable. Which is comforting, because who hasn’t desperately clung to a vacation or a period in their lives, wishing it would just go on and on?
Emily can—and does—betray handsome chef and her bestie and floats through her life with an occasional frown as her sole punishment. Imagine in real life if you met an attractive couple in a strange city, they befriended you, became some of your closest pals, and then you fucked one of them12. How would that go? Would your life hum along largely unaffected, or would it collapse around you in spectacular fashion?
That’s the power of Emily in Paris, a show that imagines that Emily is so powerfully charming that no one can be angry at her. You can easily imagine a future episode where Emily overdoses on DMT and murders her friend and roommate, staggers through Paris for a few days with crusting blood all over her, and then simply goes back to taking selfies and failing upward at her job while everyone else—including the police hauling away the rotting corpse of her friend—smile and shake their heads in affectionate exasperation13. When we fantasize about adventures, whether it’s stepping into a wardrobe and emerging the monarch of a fantasy kingdom or traveling to Paris to work a job that apparently requires 3 hours a week, we don’t like to think about the consequences of those fantasies. We don’t want to think about our family, left behind in the mundane world while we slay dragons and quest for magical artifacts, and we don’t like to think about the hangover our wild night in Paris boinking our best friend’s partner will earn us. And when watching Emily in Paris, by god we don’t have to14.
The show is a one-night stand that repeats over and over again—no one wants it crowding their DMs the next day or moving into your neighborhood so you can see where this crazy thing goes. They want their hookup to stay right where it is, preferably in a dark room waiting for us to walk back in and activate them.
Of course, I’ve been to Paris exactly once in my life and was told in no uncertain terms not to return. Yes, DMT was involved, what’s your point?
Next week: Dazed and Confused and getting high school right.
Time moves strangely in Paris. We’re in season two of the show and from what I can tell according to the show’s internal timeline Emily has only spent 36 hours there.
In the show, all the French people immediately and politely speak English when Emily is around so that she doesn’t feel left out. This is … the opposite of my own experience in Paris, where I’m pretty sure everyone was talking shit about me in French on a constant basis. I heard the phrase “homme gros” quite a bit.
By ‘colorful’ I obviously mean ‘clearly a prank on gullible Americans because no one would actually wear this stuff’.
I eagerly await the episode when the show explores the French tradition of setting cars on fire every New Year.
I am not a serious person, either, of course, but I feel like you already know that.
Somehow in romantic comedies you can be booted off multiple client accounts and yet never be fired or demoted. Whereas in my own professional experience showing up late twice in a week earns you a meeting with your boss who asks you, in all seriousness, whether you truly care about this job you took because it gave you access to free photocopies or the personal zine you publish on the side.
To be fair, most pop culture depicts work and career as ornaments on your life as opposed to the Thing That Eats Up 12 Hours of Your Day 350 Days a Year. People have “jobs” in situation comedies and romantic comedies the way I have “principles” or “ethics.”
Obviously our Streaming Overlords would love to perfect a show that we forget completely immediately after watching, so we just start watching it again. And again.
Yes, this also describes me, which is why I am a prosperous middle-aged curmudgeon instead of, you know, long dead.
That this relationship ends in a murder-suicide seems obvious to me.
To be fair, although I’m not exactly a globetrotter my own experience has been that in large European cities life is actually not much different than what I’ve experienced here in the USA. The differences are mainly on the margins. Then again, I am a well-known idiot, so take that for what’s worth.
In real life, if I met an attractive couple in Paris and they befriended me I would assume I was being grifted. It would end in tears and blood.
Tell me that doesn’t sound exactly like how this show should end.
The lack of realistic hangovers on most television offends me. Show me the puke, you cowards.