Let’s check in with that guileless representative of American innocence Emily in Paris. I respect Emily (Lily Collins) because the woman is a stone-cold psychopath. In episode four of the new series (Netflix), she likely kills a customer at her friend’s restaurant because she can’t tell the difference between champagne and champignons, to which the man is allergic. The man chokes and gasps while Emily protests that it is the French language, not she, that is in the wrong. In fairness, the man’s fate is never clarified, but if I know Emily and her friends, he’s probably still lying dead on the floor. Later scenes in the restaurant are suspiciously shot from the waist up.
Being “in Paris” is Emily’s whole MO, and she’s been there for ages now. This makes her literally fatal inability to speak French the core mystery of the series. I have learned more French watching Emily in Paris than Emily has learned in Paris while being in Emily in Paris.
If, after months eating in the sort of French restaurants Pepé Le Pew might frequent, Emily doesn’t know the French word for mushrooms, then she needs not better French classes but an MRI. I’ve not seen anyone less equipped for their habitat since Babe: Pig in the City.
And yet everyone loves Emily. She works in a Parisian marketing business where all meetings are held in English for her benefit. She is so efficient at pointing at things and speaking loudly in English that a core plot point of the season is that both her American mentor and her French boss are desperate for her to work for them.
Her friends and colleagues are now so hypnotised by her charms that they have Stockholm syndrome and frequently converse in English even when she’s not there. It’s also possible that Americans think a French accent is the French language and that if we released ‘Allo ‘Allo for the American market it would win the best foreign-language Oscar.
But we’re not here for French lessons. If you want to learn about France, read a “book”, you nerd. Instead, behold Emily, the sartorial marvel, gliding through the streets of Paris like a triumphant American tank commander flinging packets of gum at locals. In her first scene of the series she gazes out from an explosion of pink ostrich feathers, her huge Lol-Doll-size eyes gazing out from beneath her Groucho Marx eyebrows. In another she dons thigh-high lime-green waders with a brightly coloured woollen jumper covered in hearts. She looks like she’s working on a fishing vessel manned by exotic clowns. At another point she goes to a fashion-museum exhibition wearing winged shoulder extensions so wide she looks like she’s the centrepiece of an educational diorama about American exceptionalism.
Things that in other shows would lead to cringeworthy comedy of embarrassment lead to perky triumph for Emily
Sometimes, looking at her clothing, I wonder if Emily in Paris isn’t actually set in the extended Star Wars universe. Perhaps she’s C-3PO’s sister or one of the taller Ewoks. Maybe “Paris” is one of those Star Wars planets with one geographical feature – desert, snow, sea – but in this instance the single geographic feature is “Eiffel Towers”. It’s the “Eiffel Tower” planet. There are so many shots of the Eiffel Tower in Emily in Paris that even when she and her colleagues have dinner on top of the Eiffel Tower I see more Eiffel Towers in the distance. In fairness, Emily does acclimatise to some elements of francophone culture. From time to time she accessorises her hallucinogenic fashion statements with berets and stripy tops. I’ll be very surprised if she reaches the end of the series without wearing a string of garlic around her neck.
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Look, don’t get me wrong, Emily in Paris is a work of evil genius. I’m obsessed by it – and I think I’ve figured out the rules that underpin its success.
First, everything Emily does is adorable. This is the whole of the law. Things that in other shows would lead to cringeworthy comedy of embarrassment lead to perky triumph for Emily. Taking to the stage as a romantic gesture to sing a song she only learned existed moments earlier? She sings it perfectly while looking shy. Probably sending a man into aphylactic shock because she can’t speak French properly? That just leads her to a personal realisation about her own self-worth.
The world of Emily in Paris is a post-scarcity society where Americans don’t need visas, and couture clown clothes are available on the French healthcare system
Second, Emily in Paris is a smorgasbord of postmodern gestures without an underlying philosophy. It has the referential shape of camp satire, but the satirical point has been distilled out to create something new and slightly terrifying.
This can’t be accidental. The show’s creator, Darren Star, wrote Sex in the City. He’s a man who knows all there is to know about camp satire. Lots of things on Emily in Paris seem to be in gentle quotation marks – ugly Americans abroad, French lotharios, Eiffel Towers (so many Eiffel Towers), French socialism (all of August off!), American corporate sociopathy (Emily’s boss goes back to work straight after having a baby), French amorousness, American prudishness, the fact Emily’s best friends are a nightclub singer, a chef, a vineyard proprietor, a mime, a Jacobin, Inspector Clouseau, Edith Piaf and the hunchback of Notre Dame.
But it’s never clear why these things are in quotation marks. The writers just seem to be showing off the tropes they know while the meme-savvy viewers enjoy the frisson of pattern recognition wedded to a triumphant story about a prim, wackily clad Girlboss.
Finally, and most importantly, this leads to Emily in Paris being entirely tensionless. I think that’s what makes it so agreeable to the frazzled palates of Generation Z, a cohort who can’t afford houses or pensions, for whom the planet was ruined before they even got here. It would be unfair to stress them out on what is possibly the last television show. So Emily never faces any real consequences as she blunders delightfully through the streets of Paris dressed like a cast member from Starlight Express.
After betraying both her bosses, they still want to work with her. After sleeping with her friend’s boyfriend, the friend still loves her. (In fact, Emily at one point chastises her for not being honest.) After temporarily losing her job for lying, Emily never once frets about money or the validity of her visa.
The world of Emily in Paris is a post-scarcity society where Americans don’t need visas, and couture clown clothes are available on the French healthcare system. And also, like I said, she seems to have killed a man and completely gotten away with it. I eagerly anticipate the body count mounting. That often happens when Americans go abroad.