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Netflix's 'Emily in Paris' is an ill-timed love letter to American exceptionalism

Unfortunately, current events make the dreams offered by "Emily in Paris" seem not merely unattainable, but cruel to even think about.
Lily Collins as Emily in an episode \"Emily in Paris.\"
Lily Collins as Emily in an episode "Emily in Paris."Stephanie Branchu / Netflix

The new Netflix series "Emily in Paris" is a frothy, 10-episode love letter to American optimism and innocence. As such, it feels almost impossibly tin-eared in the middle of the United States' multiple self-engineered apocalypses. There's a fine line between escapism and self-deception, and “Emily in Paris” dons stylish high heels and trips lightly across it.

There's a fine line between escapism and self-deception, and “Emily in Paris” dons stylish high heels and trips lightly across it.

Emily (Lily Collins) is a marketer in Chicago who gets the opportunity to travel to Paris to provide an "American perspective" to a luxury marketing firm her company has acquired. Though she doesn't speak French, her unflagging perkiness wins over everyone from the hot downstairs neighbor Gabriel (Lucas Bravo) to the secretly wealthy Chinese nanny Mindy Chen (Ashley Park) to top flight perfumers and couture designers. The one person impervious to her charms is her boss, Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), who tries to find an excuse to fire Emily while sneering at her refusal to smoke and her quaint uncosmopolitan aversion to sleeping with married men.

"Emily in Paris" is helmed by "Sex and the City" creator Darren Star, and it is filled with fabulous outfits, fabulous parties, fabulous Paris vistas and romantic complications, as Emily is wooed by basically every man in the city. The series is intended as a pick-me-up empowerment fantasy, and we're certainly living in a time when we could use a few pick-me-ups.

Unfortunately, current events make the dreams offered by "Emily in Paris" seem not merely unattainable, but cruel to even think about. When leaving your house is a fraught proposition, a show that finds self-actualization in jetting across the Atlantic comes across less as a fun call to fulfillment and more as a taunt. The series is an endless round of champagne spray, dining and pressing cheek to cheek with strangers for selfies, all without a mask in sight. You're obviously supposed to be living vicariously through Emily, and maybe if the show had come out last year that would have worked. But in the middle of our ongoing pandemic and economic collapse, these images of carefree luxury are mostly just a bitter reminder of opportunities lost and former pleasures that are now unattainable.

The series is also unrelenting in its pro-American propaganda. While "Emily in Paris" has been billed as a romantic comedy, the real focus of the series is on the star's career advancement, which is closely linked to her national virtues. The Paris office's stereotypically cynical and lazy French staff is no match for Emily's American hustle and know how. Each episode introduces a business setback that causes Emily to pout fetchingly before coming up with a dazzling pitch or a social media post that solves everything.

While "Emily in Paris" has been billed as a romantic comedy, the real focus of the series is on the star's career advancement, which is closely linked to her national virtues.

Emily gets something from France, too, of course. Paris, as in Henry James or the classic Audrey Hepburn film "Sabrina," is a place of knowledge, sex and sophistication. "You haven't done Paris right until you've had at least one wildly inappropriate affair," a friend tells Emily. The city is an adventure for the guileless American. And naïve freshness is itself a charm that wows the powerful and jaded, and opens doors to even more wonderful adventures and experiences. Lily Collins' stunning good looks are the physical manifestation of an American purity that causes France to throw its riches at her feet, despite (or even because of) her simpering refusal to learn the language.

Again, in another era this particular fantasy might not be so jarring. American ignorance these days doesn't mean assuming the best of everyone. It means encouraging people to inject bleach and telling partisans not to take basic public health measures during a pandemic.

Emily doesn’t seem politically conservative, but the show's glib American exceptionalism and relentless sunniness in the midst of escalating disease and despair seem uncomfortably in line with a president who spent months trying to downplay Covid-19 only to test positive for it on Friday.

Star created this show before our latest crises. He and his collaborators couldn't have known when the series aired that the U.S. government's disastrous pandemic response would mean that Americans would actually be banned from traveling to Europe. Like Emily in Paris, "Emily in Paris" is innocent. But as our current government is striving to make clear, calculated American innocence is a blight on the world. "Emily in Paris" isn't as culpable as that. But it's not a lot of fun to watch, either.