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The seductive absurdity of Netflix’s Emily in Paris

The series is a boomer’s fantasy of a lazy millennial’s life.

Netflix’s Emily in Paris
Lily Collins in Emily in Paris.
Stephanie Branchu/Netflix
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

I tuned in to Emily in Paris, Netflix’s new rom-com series, expecting one kind of fantasy: an episodic version of The Devil Wears Prada, a European love affair between a young woman and her enviably stylish job.

I also anticipated that maybe the show would go in a different direction, something more akin to Sex and the City, created by Emily in Paris showrunner Darren Star. I thought I might get a season-long extension of that iconic rom-com’s series finale in which American narcissist Carrie Bradshaw moves to Paris and finds out that relocating to a new city while romantically tethered to an aging Russian playboy artist is not as romantic as it sounds.

Paris, in these two shows, is the city where the clouds part, your brain clears, and your soul finds meaning. Having burned through Emily in Paris’s 10-episode first season, I can report that Paris doesn’t really work that way for Emily, who is more the antithesis to The Devil Wears Prada’s relentless workaholic Andy Sachs, or a less romantic version of Sex and the City’s Carrie.

Five minutes into the show’s first episode, however, I found myself watching something entirely different. What I found in Emily in Paris was, instead, a fantasy about millennial laziness that I couldn’t look away from.

Emily in Paris creates an entire utopia for Emily where she, and only she, is allowed to resist conventional ideas of self-improvement and personal betterment, like that pesky myth that hard work results in success.

Emily doesn’t have to listen to her bosses or mentors or get better at her marketing job, which she herself says she’s underqualified for. Emily doesn’t have to speak French, even though everyone tells her that to have a life in Paris means learning the language. Emily doesn’t have to go to bars or parties to find new people to befriend or seduce; friends and lovers find her instead.

Emily is not curious about the new world she lives in. Even though she has rejected all norms and logic about the way things are supposed to work, the universe bends to her will, and everything works out in the end.

Her clients treat her ideas about “social media engagement” as treasured gospel. Her Instagram posts of desserts and cheeseburgers are extremely popular. The men who find her inexplicably intoxicating are all explicably handsome and wealthy.

All this inanity offers a comforting, ironically thrilling dreamland that disregards everything we’ve been told about professional and personal achievement. Instead, Emily in Paris imagines a passive existence rewarded over and over. And given that the real world has so much grief and drama seemingly packed into every hour, the show’s portrait of a land where nothing bad ever happens feels like a much-needed respite.

Emily in Paris is about success without much sacrifice

Emily in Paris
This is Emily and her boss in Paris. Emily’s boss hates her.
Carole Bethuel/Netflix

Emily in Paris starts off not abroad, but in Chicago. Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), a young woman of otherwise indeterminate age, works at a marketing firm as a professional with an indeterminate title. She is presented as both very experienced at marketing and very surprised by the way common things, like time zones, work.

But thanks to her mentor Madeline’s (Kate Walsh) surprise pregnancy, Emily’s asked to move to Paris to take Madeline’s new job: Madeline was supposed to be doing something for Savoir, a marketing service for luxury brands that Emily’s Chicago firm has just acquired.

It’s a swift introduction to Emily’s world, because in reality, her mentor’s job would likely go to someone in a more senior position given the apparent gulf in expertise between Emily and Madeline. In a more normal scenario, Madeline would likely hand over her role to someone more knowledgeable about French luxury brands.

Emily has recently been working on a presentation about irritable bowel syndrome. Yet the only characters we are introduced to at her apparently gigantic, multimillion-dollar firm are Emily and Madeline. Emily and Madeline, we are made to realize, are the only people who matter here.

Apparently the only thing tethering Emily to Chicago is her boyfriend. It’s unclear if Emily has a family in Chicago, or at all. She talks about her youth in a way that seems more like a remastered greatest hits of childhood memories than actual human experience.

For most humans, the prospect of starting a new job you’re unqualified for in a country where you don’t speak the language would require serious deliberation. You’d likely talk to friends and family and colleagues to get their advice. Weighing these options would take time. There would probably be all kinds of visa and HR issues to work out first, too.

But for Emily, these terrestrial conundrums do not exist.

And so, in a move that makes it seem like she is not actually living real life but is stuck in a simulation, IBS marketing expert Emily goes to Paris what seems like the very next day.

In Paris, Emily’s two main conflicts are figuring out how to count flights of stairs in her apartment building and failing to please Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), her new boss at Savoir. She does neither of these things well. Her neighbor Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), like almost all of the named male characters on the show, is immediately attracted to Emily, seemingly because she cannot count. Sylvie is angry with her, not because of Emily’s inability to count but because she believes Emily is tarnishing the reputations of Savoir’s brands by making them too “common” for posh French consumers.

Instead of learning arithmetic or French, as she’s advised by both Gabriel and Sylvie, Emily trudges on and forces the people she encounters to adapt to her. She tells Savoir that she’s a hard worker, despite barely attempting to learn the language her clients and boss speak. She doesn’t seem to keep a meetings calendar, despite claiming to be meticulously organized. She also doesn’t have many promotional ideas for her clients besides “making something popular on Instagram.”

At the same time, Emily starts a new Instagram account (handle: emilyinparis), where she posts pictures and boomerangs of herself doing what Parisians consider touristy. She takes selfies from her balcony overlooking the city and fawning over the Eiffel Tower. She also shares very mundane things, like a photo of herself eating a pain au chocolat and captioning it “butter+chocolate= <3 [our publishing system doesn’t recognize the pink vibrating heart emoji].”

Under any other circumstances, Emily’s lack of curiosity about her new city and job would probably get her fired and annoy her friends and neighbors. But she somehow succeeds at work and at charming Gabriel.

Her Instagram following also grows exponentially, from nothing to the tens of thousands, even though she continues to post clichéd pictures and captions like “cheeseburger in paradise.” While real-life people have to take multiple shots to ensure one great one for Instagram, in Emily’s world, effort isn’t necessary for success. She can have her cake and caption it “sugar+butter=<3” too.

Emily’s upward and onward trajectory isn’t a traditional career fantasy of slowly mastering and getting better at your job, nor is her seduction of Gabriel a traditionally romantic one save for Gabriel being extremely handsome. Rather, Emily’s story is about living an anxiety-free existence without any negative consequences. And while she lives an intellectually uncurious life, Emily in Paris never punishes her for it, nor do we ever witness Emily reflecting on her possibly embarrassing behavior.

A thing to consider is that while Emily’s life is idle bliss, the people in her orbit are all working really hard. Her best friend Mindy Chen (Ashley Park) speaks at least three languages, has the singing voice of a pop star, and is left at the end of the season with a so-called dream job of a twice-a-week gig singing at an unnamed drag bar.

Somehow, every time Emily messes up, the universe pats her on the back and assures her that she is worthy of every single one of its riches. And I realized after the first few episodes that maybe I’ve been praying to the wrong god, because wouldn’t it be nice to be Emily?

Why I’m fine with letting Emily in Paris eat my brain

This is how every man in Paris looks at Emily (in Paris).
Carole Bethuel/Netflix

Part of the fun of watching Emily in Paris is figuring out what media Darren Star has plucked directly from and mashed up to create this show. The introduction of Mindy (Ashley Park), Emily’s best friend, as a good-hearted Chinese zipper heiress with a bunch of very wealthy Chinese friends makes me believe he very much enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians. The way Sylvie talks feels like he told Leroy-Beaulieu to just watch Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada over and over. Gabriel’s chef drama signals that Starr may have marathoned both seasons of Sweetbitter and/or loves Top Chef.

But the way Emily spouts off talking points about social engagement, audience, and interactions makes me believe Starr was probably called into a corporate meeting with a social media team to learn how to relate to the youths. Emily comes across as a character written by someone who had heard good things about those millennials but never actually encountered one in real life.

And what he took away from his education was a sense of relentless pressure to work hard and perform well. Starr’s conclusion seems to have been that millennials have a constant need to work all the time, and if they aren’t working, then they’re not succeeding.

Millennial lives on social media are built on work, curation, editing, and planning. But content-blessed Emily gets the right shot on the first try — every single time. There’s no need to edit a life as perfect as hers.

If Emily’s life is supposed to be a millennial woman’s dream come true, then that dream is not built on upward trajectory, money, or the knowledge that she made the world a better place. Rather, it’s a relatively worry-free, intellectually slovenly existence, in which a metropolitan place like Paris is more amusement park than a large, imperfect city.

Considering the current state of events — a pandemic with no clear end in sight, a presidential race that could very well determine the future of American democracy, raging wildfires whose smoke chokes out the sun, and a burgeoning economic collapse, among many other problems — it’s actually a huge relief to watch something that does not care about such depressing things. The only politician who’s mentioned prominently in the show is France’s first lady Brigitte Macron, for instance, and she’s only used as a prop for a joke about vaginas.

Watching Emily in Paris is like drawing a warm bath for my brain cells, an isolated, low-effort form of pleasure. The conflicts never last long enough to actually matter, and even then, they’re low-consequence. As we’re told in the later episodes, getting fired in France rarely actually happens, because there’s too much paperwork attached. There’s never going to be a worst-case scenario for Emily.

If times were different, and the pandemic hadn’t exposed how absolutely rotten life can feel, I’d probably have dropped Emily in Paris in favor of something more insightful, more grounded in reality. But for now, I want to ditch work and watch 10 more episodes.

Emily in Paris is now streaming on Netflix.

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