As season 3 of Emily in Paris scorches its way through people’s holiday binge-watch list, those that turn their noses up at flashy cinematography and overt tackiness may be changing the Netflix password so they aren’t forced to overhear the nauseating dialogue. Sex and the City creator Darren Star’s sitcom follows an American marketing professional, Emily Cooper, as she Instagrams her way through Paris and navigates new relationships. The show received withering reviews, offense from French viewers, and the headline “People Hate Emily in Paris So Much It’s a Global Crisis.”
However, an exciting phenomenon ensued after the show’s premiere. People may have hated it, but they still tuned in. A tweet by famous comedian Phillip Henry summed up the dynamic: “1) Emily In Paris is one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen. 2) I finished it in one sitting.” Emily might have made some cringe, recoil into their skin occasionally, and shield their eyes from pattern-clashing couture, but the argument that she didn’t serve a single purpose is flawed. When Election Night 2020 was proving tumultuous and harrowing, an Atlantic writer rewatched Emily’s flirtations with her hunky neighbor to drown out the wobbling of democracy. The series provided people with a light-hearted escape from the horrors of recent years.
When asked about their opinion of the show in public, I’m sure some scoff and either deny watching it or bash the writing to appear high-brow. Yet, in the comfort of their couch, they probably settle up with a bowl of popcorn and click “yes” to Netflix’s question “Are you still watching?” at one in the morning.
Journalist Spencer Kornhaber deemed the show a “catastrophe for the culture” on par with the burning of Notre Dame. Now, who’s being dramatic?
Emily in Paris, ladies, and gentlemen is the most real example of a “guilty pleasure,” a term many commentators have argued against using as the concept can disguise classism, prejudice, and the insane American delusion that all free time should be used productively.
My take? Who said people couldn’t have fun when they consume television anymore? Not everyone enjoys and seeks to escape from their daily lives in multi-episode documentaries about serial killers and cults. A series's emotional heaviness or intellectual properties shouldn’t determine its value or merit. If it entertains a fair amount of people and reliably steers clear of reality TV tropes, then the pretentious bingers are damned.
Furthermore, the sentiment that shows with bright colors and energetic female leads can’t also make some commentary or have an undercurrent of meaning is ludicrous and faintly reminiscent of another societal trend that I can’t quite place yet serves the same audience most known for bashing the series. Wonder what it is.
Emily in Paris is not just a chronicle of a tourist fantasy that flouts wisdom, tact, and good taste – it is a show about the tyranny of taste, the joy of tackiness, and the flexibility of culture. In our era, when morality and politics are swirled into the entertainment discourse when TV shows and films are dissected for their artistic merit and messages, Emily in Paris does two provocative things. It indulges in escapism for its own sake and continually picks apart the definitions of quality.
If Emily in Paris annoys you because of a perceived lack of taste or obnoxiously careless characters, congratulations, you’re precisely whom the creators wanted to vex and make a point to mock and exclude.
Intermingled with Emily’s push-and-pull love life is the clash between Emily’s can-do American cheer and the refinement of her French acquaintances. Her workaholism, provincialism, and affinity for Starbucks strike them as trashy. In French sensibility, as portrayed on the show, the pursuit of beauty and pleasure has been hardened into the dogma called taste. And anyone who deviates from that standard must be anything but tasteful.
However, Emily’s disregard for French traditions is the star of the show. Her crass advertising ideas tended to work; her cluelessness attracted rather than repelled would-be friends and lovers. Her trampling of pretenses was fantastical—but it also amplified the truth that pleasure is not zero-sum. One person’s Justin Bieber fandom doesn’t threaten another’s enjoyment of Bach; one person’s deep-dish pizza does not detract from another’s trout amandine. Those who forgo pop music and pizza may feel superior, but Emily in Paris shrugs at such snobbery. The show’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 60%, which isn’t one to scoff at.
Emily wields her Americaness, with its consumerism and superficiality, and careerism, like a wrecking ball. There she is – chipping away at one of the few lavish enclaves that have managed to resist the pervasiveness of American culture. Many viewers assumed that at some point in the show, she would learn to curb her American cheer and determination to better assimilate with her surroundings, but it never happened. There was to be no grand character arc that stripped Emily of some of the qualities that made her such an abomination to the French because that wasn’t the message of the show. People can be different, cultures can be intertwined, and the supposed tension can evaporate into a fun show about croissants.
Season 2 emerged with jokes about Emily’s fashion choices and no-fun workaholicism made at her expense, as well as lessons in French due to the mounting difficulty of the language barrier. The show’s locals also got their storylines filled with surprisingly crackling scenes of predictably snarky French dialogue.
The story is still preposterous and privilege-ridden, yet the culture clash isn’t just about clothes and food anymore. Instead, it’s about relationships. Emily strains to be good in sort of a puritanical sense, which is to say she doesn’t want to keep hooking up with her best friend’s ex. As Sylvie taunts her not to be so hopelessly un-French as to decline a hot affair, the show nods at how behavior, aesthetics, values, and attitudes get swirled up in that hazy thing called culture. “You’ve got the rest of your life to be as dull as you wish,” Sylvie says. “But while you’re here, fall in love, make mistakes, leave a disastrous trail in your wake.”
The show proves the effectiveness of the very attitude that makes it repulsive to many Netflix customers. In Emily’s case, following your bliss, regardless of others’ evaluations, pays off every time, while bowing to others’ standards makes only misery. For obvious reasons, most of us can’t live as freely as Emily, but tuning in is the next best thing. Could you not rain on our parade?
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