In the first episode of Emily in Paris, a 10-part Netflix series from Sex and the City creator Darren Starr, the eponymous protagonist laments the European approach to numbering the floors of a building. So unable is poor American Emily to comprehend the concept of a ground floor, she repeatedly tries to access the apartment on the level below hers, where – mais non! – a good-looking French man lives.
Emily, played by Lily Collins, is a marketing professional sent to Paris from Chicago to bring the “American perspective” to a small French agency. She does not subscribe to the mantra of “when in Rome”. In fact, her entire way of being clashes with French culture – or rather, the show’s view of French culture, which is a steaming hot coq-au-cliché. Her French colleagues either take three-hour, wine-soaked lunches or simply smoke a cigarette instead.
Emily is obnoxious and refuses to adapt to her new way of life. She demands that her new colleagues listen to her suggestions, patronisingly offering up her iPhone as a translator, which she points at people when she wants to speak to them. Somehow, her marketing prowess (this appears to extend as far as posting selfies on Instagram and using hashtags) turns her into an overnight social media influencer.
Critics have panned Emily in Paris. This newspaper described it as “a kind of Westworld-style Paris-themed amusement park in the midwest designed to teach young women lessons in life and love”. So we can all agree it’s pretty basic, then.
At one point in the show, Emily is even dismissed by a designer who calls her a “basic bitch” – a slur so sexist one wonders how it has survived so long in the popular millennial lexicon. Instead of being offended, Emily immediately embraces the term, retorting that she may indeed be basic, but so are the lovers of his brand that made him famous.
And that’s the thing. Sometimes we all need a little basic in our lives. Starr is not pretending otherwise. I’ve found myself, equal parts eye-rolling, equal parts lapping it up, feeding my basic side. Emily in Paris is like a Pumpkin Spice Latte for the brain.
The outfits put together by Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field are every bit as ludicrous and playful as the ones seen on Carrie Bradshaw. Emily dons elaborate designer garb that directly contrasts with the understated black tones worn by her French colleagues and inject shots of colour and irreverence into every scene.
I’m not ashamed to admit that Emily in Paris is just the tonic I have been craving as we stare down the barrel of a second lockdown. It is the antithesis of the doom and gloom offered up on the news.
Each episode provides 30 minutes of unashamedly light escapism that doesn’t expect anything of us. “Emily in Paris is a confection, a series so charming and fanciful that it becomes impervious to snobbery and cynicism,” wrote Shirley Li in The Atlantic and it’s hard to disagree.
It’s no wonder it’s hovering on Netflix’s “most watched” list. At the start of lockdown, the world turned to movies, such as Contagion and Outbreak, masochistically revelling in our dystopia. Then we rubbernecked at the car crash of animal mistreatment and misogyny in Tiger King, before becoming obsessed with the doomed and miserable relationship of Connell and Marianne in Normal People.
Half a year on – or has it been much, much longer? – Selling Sunset, a reality series about real estate agents selling impossibly expensive houses for eye-watering commissions has proven popular. Now Emily in Paris is scratching our collective pop-cultural itch. That’s not to say we’re no longer capable of processing anything more hard-hitting. But sometimes we need good old-fashioned guilt-free easy viewing. And critics would do well to remember there's a place for that.
This is a series devoid of pretence, depth and moral angle. Perhaps it won’t be something we return to time and again and it isn’t going to leave an indelible mark on our psyche or speak to a greater truth. But in times like these, maybe we can allow ourselves – just this once – to enjoy some unadulterated froth. Lord knows we could do with it.