‘Emily in Paris’ and the City I Thought Was Mine
PARIS — I still have the text message saved from my best friend here that arrived last October with the urgency of a high-speed TGV train. It just said “omg,” with seven additional G’s, and preceded a screenshot of the American actor Lily Collins sitting at the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris: my go-to cafe in the city, with the best sausage and lentils at lunch and a view onto an obscure little square behind the Panthéon.
“You are all over the show,” my friend texted me, and for weeks after I endured brutal mockery that my Parisian bolt-hole was about to become a tourist site, like Carrie Bradshaw’s brownstone or the Harry Potter train station platform.
I’d lived in Paris, knew my way around French culture and French men (I’d just married one). I’d postured as some sophisticate with better taste than the millions who come through each year. And here was Emily, in one of her stupid outfits, at my cafe.
Shame seemed to be a common reaction to “Emily in Paris,” which became the hate-watch par excellence of Pandemic Year One, and whose second season arrives Wednesday on Netflix with le nouveau variant Omicron. That this show was even renewed for a second season may surprise you, if you are in the dwindling number that still thinks critical opprobrium and public nausea can triumph over streaming algorithmic logic.
It’s worth being precise about its appeal, for “Emily in Paris” is not trash TV, not some “Real Housewives of Île-de-France.” It’s not even champagne-soaked enough to be escapist, in the manner of a “Big Little Lies” or “Gossip Girl.” It’s something newer and weirder than those: as insubstantial as a gluten-free meringue from the Bon Marché food hall, so whisper-thin it almost asks you not to watch it, at least not without your phone in your hand. In this, I have to say, it feels like a breakthrough, though perhaps in the sense that a coronavirus infection can be a breakthrough.
When we left Emily in my beloved Place de l’Éstrapade (or the Place Emily, as I now call it) at the end of season one, our Chicagoan heroine was at a romantic crossroads. Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), her chef neighbor whom she finally slept with, has decided to stay in Paris and open his own restaurant — filmed not at Nouvelle Mairie, thank God, but an Italian spot across the square. This makes things difficult for Emily’s friendship with Camille (Camille Razat), Gabriel’s girlfriend; it also muddies the waters with Emily’s current beau, though if you can remember his name is Mathieu, you are really ahead of me.
I’d watched all 10 episodes of the first season — let’s say 2020 was a difficult year and leave it there — and yet I remembered essentially none of these details, which washed over me with the same fleeting impact as an Instagram reel. I still had some vague, pleasant memories of Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), Emily’s boss and the only character here I would ever have a two-hour lunch with (at L’Astrance, and on expenses).
The second season has familiar comforts. Emily and her colleagues at the marketing firm are still putting out half-serious ad campaigns, and the product placements are still schmeared as thickly as foie gras on pain d’épice. There are the same archaic, would-they-were-true clichés of Parisian savoir faire: Sylvie smokes in the office, has a husband and a lover, and swears by a magic leek soup for weight loss that you may remember from “Oprah” circa 2005.
Emily’s outfits are still unspeakable: a highlighter-green blazer worn with violet motorcycle gloves! A heart-festooned house dress worn with a pink overcoat and bandeau! A blue lace bustier — a one-sleeved blue lace bustier — that’s somehow classed as work-appropriate! It’s as if Darren Star, the creator of both “Sex and the City” and this show, had replaced the costume designers with a low-level machine learning algorithm that spat out this glitchy Carrie clone.
I have friends who say they watch idiotic television like this to “turn their brains off,” but I had the opposite sensation: My brain was so untaxed it started working overtime. When I wasn’t scrolling on my phone, I found myself involuntarily writing new episodes that could bring a little real Paris into the Place Emily. After an hour they just started writing themselves: Emily mistypes an address in her taxi app, and ends up at an Éric Zemmour rally. Emily’s best friend from Dubai visits, but her head scarf causes a commotion at Savoir …
But Paris, in “Emily in Paris,” is less a city than a series of convertible backdrops. Lunch at the Café Marly at the Louvre. Coffee on the roof of Galeries Lafayette. Drinks at the bar of the Lutetia Hotel. Above all there is the Place Emily, the perfect little left-bank hideaway, where our American takes over my square for her own private dinner party. To film in the area, Le Monde reported this summer that Netflix closed seven streets. “They think they bought the whole neighborhood,” complained a local who lived next to Gabriel’s restaurant — though the square’s baker appreciated the compensation that meant “I don’t have to make a single baguette.”
It’s always sunny in the Place Emily, though the show’s D.P. seems to have trained at the Dolly Parton School of Cinematography: It takes a lot of money to make Paris look this cheap. At least there was some realistic glamour in “The Devil Wears Prada,” with Anne Hathaway chucking her T-Mobile Sidekick into the fountain at an overcast Place de la Concorde. Whereas “Emily in Paris” comes close to being an Instagram feed itself: a gently flowing stream of vaguely familiar personages in vaguely familiar settings, the outfits color-blocked, the light settings tweaked, with no great developments to report.
Is “Emily in Paris” in fact an anamorphic projection of @emilyinparis, Emily’s Instagram account, into moving pictures? That’d explain the total lack of impact 20 episodes of this streaming blancmange have had on me, and how little I care that Emily never gets stuck on the RER or waits in line for a visa renewal.
For compared to “Sex and the City” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Emily in Paris” might as well be cinéma vérité, insofar as it shows us the vapidity of the smartphone biographies we all keep compulsively authoring. Some days I wonder if it’s better just to accept that: accept the tragic triumph of Emilyism, accept the basicness that has enveloped us all, rather than make a pitiful last stand for an unmediated life. What else is there to be done? Insist to your friends (and followers) that Netflix’s Paris is a sham, that you alone have discovered the real city? Is this not the most Emily move of all?
On Monday morning, jet-lagged, under a classically Parisian gray sky that no Netflix director would allow, I slouched into my favorite corner of the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie. I had endured various small humiliations, the likes of which Emily will never know: a two-hour wait for an antigen test; a delayed flight; bumper-to-bumper traffic on the ring road; an older man, nursing what was not his first white wine of the day, coughing his lungs out at the table next to mine.
The day was cold, the virus was circulating, but the Place Emily was still here. With my air of American possessiveness I felt I was back home, and so I pulled out my phone, angled it so the gray cobblestones looked just right, and took a picture. Emily, c’est moi.