I enjoy a good true crime documentary as much as the next prurient voyeur, but there is something about living through a global plague that rather puts me off watching TV shows about death. I seem to be alone in this. At one point in my life I’d kill (not literally) for a good murder to break up the monotony of bloody Masterchef, but now I can’t get away from them: from Dennis Nilsen to Harold Shipman to Chris Watts, every night there is another programme about another psychopath to cheer us all up. It’s enough to make you long for Gregg Wallace. Almost.
But like a glittery Louboutin striding through a muddy apocalypse, the God of escapist TV, Darren Star, arrives when we need him most. Star, the man behind Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex And The City, has now gifted unto us Emily In Paris, a drama about a twentysomething American (Lily Collins) who moves to Paris and works in a fancy office despite – ooh la la! – not speaking French. And boy, have people been grateful for it: New York magazine ran six excitable blogs about the show in a week, and it has already achieved the ultimate modern accolade of trending on Twitter.
Admittedly, not everyone is so delighted. French critics have expressed frustration that the show does not present a realistic image of the city. “Parisians will not find it easy to recognise their daily lives,” RTL radio harrumphed, while Premiere tutted: “When they decided to caricature us, they didn’t hold back.” To which one can only reply, “Oui, bienvenue à l’oeuvre de Darren Star, mes amis Français!” Did the French think 90210 and SATC were searing documentaries about the United States? Honestly, being outraged that Star hasn’t done a gritty La Haine-esque take on Paris is a zillion times funnier than anything on the show itself.
Because Emily In Paris is not good. In fact, I will go so far as to call it bad, and it pains me to say this, as a Star devotee. It is always a disaster when an American show decides to send its characters abroad for an episode, because US TV writers never seem to know how to write about those crazy foreigners; must we really rehash, again, the crimes against culture that were the episodes of Friends set in London, or Sex And The City in Paris? Well, Star seems to have decided to take those episodes and turn them into a whole series.
Look, I love escapist TV, even – OK especially – when it’s not a million miles from my own life: like Emily, I, too, worked briefly in Paris in my mid-20s, and I can confirm it was not the way it is depicted on the show. I was 21, and worked at French Vogue as a general dogsbody and, just like Emily, my French boss despaired of me. But unlike on the show, she wasn’t sleeping with the married owner of the company; she didn’t even smoke, for heaven’s sake. But I forgive the show for these (inaccurate) cliches: I also lived in New York as a single woman in my 30s and – spoiler – my life bore about as much similarity to SATC as it did to Star Trek. I’m not turning to Star for realism.
I do, however, expect decent characters and emotional truth. The settings and plots of escapist TV are almost always fantastical – that’s the whole point. But without human depth the audience may as well just scroll through Emily’s incessantly referenced Instagram feed. In 90210, Kelly (Jennie Garth) was ostensibly a mean girl, but vulnerable and likable; in SATC, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) was confused and often flat-out unhinged, and that’s what made her interesting. There are no such so-called risks in Emily In Paris: people are good or bad, pretty or not, French or American.
Oddly enough, the last time I saw Collins on screen she was in the 2017 drama To The Bone, in which she played an anorexic, another situation I know a thing or two about. In that, she was treated by a doctor played by Keanu Reeves, and had a romance with a fellow in-patient, making To The Bone even more laughably unrealistic than Emily In Paris. So cheer up, French people, it could have been worse.
So what would a realistic Emily In Paris look like, anyway? Heureusement, I have some insider knowledge. Here’s how the truth looks, gleaned, shall we say, from gritty personal experience:
[INT] A young American woman wakes up on a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s sofa. She considers buying a croissant, as she knows she should, but eats Frosties, again. She heads out in her finest French outfit (head-to-toe Kookai) for her second day at work.
She arrives at the office. No one is shagging; no one is drinking.
Boss Could you photocopy some articles about Karl Lagerfeld?
Young American OK.
Boss Oh, did anyone check if you have a work visa, given you’re American?
Young American No. Do I need one?
Boss Yes. You’re fired.
Honestly, reality is overrated.