In Emily in Paris, a Beautiful Disaster Unfolds
The first season of Emily in Paris came out on Netflix in Sept 2020. The premise: a young woman, Emily Cooper, is offered a job in Paris when her employer buys out a French marketing company, Savoir. Though she doesn’t speak a word of French, and her boyfriend protests, Emily accepts.
The show is entertaining, but Emily (Lily Collins) starts committing faux pas soon after she lands. For example, she tries to open the wrong apartment door because she doesn’t understand how French buildings are set up. She quickly meets her boss and co-workers, who are taken aback that she only speaks English. And she quickly falls for a guy who isn’t available.
The show is reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada: a young woman who knows nothing of fashion has to please a difficult boss. But in Prada, Anne Hathaway’s Andy actually listens when someone tells her how to fit in and excel at her job. While many characters tell Emily to learn French and step out of her American mindset, she refuses.
Though Emily chronicles all of her activities in an Instagram account that gains in popularity, she never actually speaks to the woman in charge of social media at Savoir, due to the language barrier. Emily briefly tries to learn the language, then gives up.
There is one telling scene in which Emily is relieved to have lunch with another American. In another show, the main character would listen to her new companion talk about disliking the French language and food, and then call her out. “We’re here, so we should speak the language,” she would say. “And the food is amazing! How can you come to France and only want to eat a hamburger?” Then she would storm off in a montage of reading about Paris and practicing French, wow her coworkers, and finally be accepted.
No such realization comes. She only tries to get everyone to see things from her perspective. In fact, Emily is almost the villain of the story. Though her boss Sylvie is tough on her, we can totally see where she’s coming from: another company bought theirs, and sent a foreigner to boss them around. Emily’s actions repeatedly put Savoir in peril and are often baffling (like giving free advertising to a competitor).
What’s astonishing is that Emily can make a decision that is an absolute disaster, then make excuses and salvage it with a great marketing idea. She often uses people for translating or favors, and never repays their kindness. Guys are trying to date Emily left and right, but she makes some jaw-dropping (and in one case, really horrible) choices. She uses the “but I don’t speak French” excuse, even at the point when even an American should naturally be picking up some French words.
When the show expands to other characters, it really gets interesting. A highlight of the show is Mindy (Ashley Park), who makes fast friends with Emily. Mindy is hiding out in Paris because she doesn’t want to run her family’s business, and the show sets up a great arc for her to explore in the second season. Emily’s work friends — the irascible Luc, the savvy Julien — also provide plenty of context and entertainment. And there’s Camille, a character who’s a wonderful friend to Emily, while Emily doesn’t always act wonderful back.
There are some beautiful scenes, such as when the characters explore the Atelier des Lumières Van Gogh exhibition. There’s another scene where Emily is out on a walk with someone, and they teach each other French and English words. Then the show pulls back. Emily’s neighbor Gabriel is a chef, but she doesn’t explore dishes beyond steak, “pain au chocolat,” and omelettes. As a viewer, I want to step into Paris with Emily, learning a little more of its culture and language. Instead, the show retreats into Emily’s messes.
In fact, what we see of Paris seems hostile — at least, to Emily. In one notable arc, a character at first seems suspicious. But in a conversation Emily doesn’t hear, he turns out to be a standout guy: someone who recognizes his mistakes and works hard so others don’t have to make the bad choices he made. Perhaps in season 2, Emily will start to do the same.