“Emily in Paris” has a way of driving viewers crazy.
There were groans when the Netflix series’ first season was nominated for best comedy at the Golden Globes and at the Emmys. And it occasioned a widely-circulated New Yorker piece that described it as part of a rising trend of “ambient TV,” describing it as “an artifact of contemporary dystopia.”
Sure, nominating “Emily in Paris” as one of the very best shows on TV seems a little overblown. But, as the show’s second season drops Dec. 22, so does describing it as at the forefront of any contemporary movement, much less a dystopian one. Television that exists to be viewed ambiently rather than deeply obsessed over is something that’s been with us throughout the history of the medium; indeed, it’s only relatively recently that televised dramas started being treated as high art. And so it is that in its second season, “Emily in Paris” serves up more of the same, and more of something TV can do well: Charming, watchable, low-friction entertainment in a setting that’s fun to look at. It’s not the best of anything. But it’s good TV.
As played by Lily Collins, Emily is something of a cipher: She wants to be in Paris because she’s looking for love and new experiences, but she seems to exercise little will of her own, stumbling into and out of situations. Her triumphs at work, at a luxury-goods marketing firm, are, viewed charitably, serendipitous — viewed more realistically, they’re often entirely accidental. When she errs, no one stays angry with her for long. And when she scores a win, it’s quickly dispensed with as her coworkers move on to the next thing.
All of which adds up to a show that isn’t terribly cerebral or demanding, coasting on the charm of its setting and the age-old culture-clash storyline. (Indeed, in depicting an American whose sunny self-belief erodes the defenses of stuffy Europeans, “Emily in Paris” can play at times like a distaff “Ted Lasso.”) But being a good hang counts for something. And the flaws of “Emily in Paris” — its refusal to engage with the concept of actions having consequences, for instance — can be seen as the result of its endless pursuit of showing us the next charming setting, the next delirious misunderstanding. It’s television that is truly episodic, staging situations and resolving them with close to as little long-term change made as on an episode of “The Simpsons.”
All of which strikes this viewer as a perfectly fine use of the medium. Sometimes, one wants to watch “The Sopranos,” and sometimes, vignettes from the life of a young woman bounding through a foreign city in search of love will do quite nicely. “Emily in Paris” would certainly be more rich, complex, and layered if it gave Collins more to play, or examined the clash between her American values and the somewhat snobbish old world sophistication of her French employers in greater depth. But holding great entertainment to the standard of great art is a recipe for unhappiness.
Which is not to say that any old slop can be excused as long as it entertains someone. But “Emily in Paris” features shrewd acting by Collins, holding her features somewhat blankly as a comment on the social-media age that I’d argue the show knows it is making. If Emily’s life in pursuit of Instagram likes is “dystopian,” the show is aware of this; the randomness of her successes at work seems a comment on the capriciousness of life online.
Similarly, this series has something to say about self-absorption: Emily’s failure to learn French or immerse herself in French culture, a bugbear of the show’s haters, is treated critically in this new season. Her American-ness, her insistence on her own exceptional nature, often helps Emily out, but it also is shown, at times, as an inherent limitation she must work to overcome. She is forced to confront, in sitcom-appropriate ways, herself, all against a bubbly backdrop that lightens the mood.
That ebullient setting can too easily be read as all that’s going on in the picture. And maybe the fact that “Emily in Paris” can be interpreted in such wildly differing ways — as among TV’s very best, as harbinger of the end times, or as a fine show that manages to raise spirits and be about something — suggests that there’s some art in the formula after all.
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