There’s a Place in France

‘Emily in Paris’ is a ridiculous bonbon for troubled times

Emily in Paris is a sunny fish-out-of-water parable in the mold of Legally Blonde, The Devil Wears Prada, or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, so aggressively art directed and so simplistically scripted that it’s practically a cartoon. As Emily herself says, “The entire city looks like Ratatouille!”

The title of the Darren Star-produced series is also the plot. Perky twentysomething Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), a junior exec at a Chicago marketing firm, gets transferred to a newly-acquired Paris subsidiary for a year when her boss (Kate Walsh), who was due to make the move, unexpectedly finds herself pregnant. (“She was having a lot of going-away sex,” Emily explains.) Leaving aside the fact that Paris is perhaps the best place in the world to give birth thanks to socialized medicine and childcare, gourmet hospital food, and a liberal attitude towards postpartum alcohol and caffeine, Emily gleefully leans into the waiting job and apartment.

Emily in Paris
Lily Collins is full of merde as ‘Emily in Paris’.

Unlike her boss, though, Emily doesn’t speak French, and her marketing expertise is mostly limited to hyping pharmaceuticals and geriatric products on social media, not promoting luxury brands to French consumers. With an actual cry of “Fake it ‘til you make it!” she arms herself with Rosetta Stone and Google Translate. Faster than you can say “bawn-jure,” she’s Instagramming pastry and dispensing double-cheeked business kisses. The only things harshing her sugar-and-butter buzz are the public urinals, dog poop, dicey water pressure, and rude French people. Sure, they’re clichés, but any American who’s ever held a Eurail Pass can relate. (For a more subtle and grown-up take on the same trope, stream NBC’s underappreciated 2014 sitcom Welcome to Sweden.)

We meet Emily’s supremely condescending co-workers, her hot downstairs neighbor (Lucas Bravo), and another expat, Mindy (Ashley Park), who’s from Shanghai but conveniently speaks fluent English and shares Emily’s taste for wildly inappropriate fashion; they swan around Paris in berets, formal shorts, and stiletto boots, never once tripping on the cobblestones. (The OTT costumes are courtesy of stylist Pat Field of Star’s Sex and the City.) Mindy brings a welcome Crazy Rich Asians vibe and serves as the sassy, sex-crazed Samantha in Emily’s growing circle of friends, tossing off bons mots like “This is Sancerre—it’s a breakfast wine!” and “I’d bon appetit HIM!”

“Chinese people are mean behind your back,” Mindy warns Emily. “French people are mean to your face.” But Emily is pretty mean too, albeit mostly unintentionally. She informs a perfume executive client: “I’m not usually a perfume girl.” She sends back an undercooked steak at a restaurant, telling the chef: “The customer is always right.” She lectures random French people about the dangers of smoking. She complains about the city’s confusing circular street plan and the lack of elevators. (You’d complain too if you had Emily’s footwear collection.) She’s judgy about French sexual mores. She’s constantly telling her older and more experienced co-workers how to do their jobs.

At first, I thought the show was setting Emily up as a stereotypical Ugly American in order make her redemption more dramatic, much as Anne Hathaway transformed from a fashion-hating frump into a sleek clotheshorse in The Devil Wears Prada. Yet Emily’s cultural awareness progresses as slowly as her French vocabulary, forcing everyone around her to accommodate her limitations. Like a yappy poodle, she’s more annoying than cute. The show works only because it calls Emily out on her merde. Far from impressing her office mates, her naked ambition and political correctness earn her solo lunches, pithy put-downs, and cruel nicknames. (I now know how to say “basic bitch” and “hick” in French.) She finally wins their grudging respect when Brigitte Macron shares her social media post about a vaginal moisturizer. “The Daily Mail called it a re-twat!” Emily boasts.

Emily’s Americanness serves as a mask (or maybe a metaphor) for her millennial entitlement. Her bratty behavior, wholly unearned, would get her fired from any office job in the world. Her friends—and Paris itself—seemingly exist only to further her career and bolster her Instagram following. That her out-of-the-box social media marketing stunts go viral and impress her senior colleagues is as much a part of the show’s baked-in wish fulfillment as Emily’s equally improbable wardrobe of Chanel and Louboutin, her half-timbered, high-ceilinged apartment with a view, and her irresistible sexual appeal to Frenchmen of all ages, despite being a narcissistic prude. Of course, this fantasy—achieving an enviable lifestyle despite being objectively bad at your job and relationships—is not unique to Emily’s generation; you could say the same thing about SATC’s Carrie Bradshaw, who evoked similarly conflicted loyalty from viewers.

Yet Emily in Paris has struck a cultural nerve, largely because its superficial prettiness and low-stakes conflict offer a balm to our collective real-world anxieties. Emily’s problems—usually of her own making—are neatly resolved in easily bingeable half-hour episodes. Even the show’s many love triangles are a source of mild angst, not high drama. This curiously underpopulated version of Paris is all adorable florists, boulangeries, and bistros, backed by a retro-jazzy soundtrack. Though one character proclaims it “the most exciting city in the world,” it comes across as a comfortingly sleepy small town. “The wonderful thing about Paris is that nobody judges you for doing nothing,” Mindy muses. “It’s practically an art form here.” It’s a refreshing sentiment for 2020, the year when all our best laid plans got cancelled.

The undemanding, escapist fun peters out a bit in the final episodes, and the series ends on an emotional cliffhanger. Since it was filmed on location, we may have to wait a while to find out where Emily’s charmed and charming life takes her next.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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