Lily Collins Is an Aloof Midwestern American in Darren Star’s Clichéd ‘Emily in Paris’

Netflix’s latest dose of candy-flavored romantic humor, “Emily in Paris,” is set in, you guessed it, Paris, but feels more like Americans attempting to pull off French accents. It’s the latest creation by Darren Star, who gave ’90s TV viewers tales of youthful hipness and dastardly lovers donning perfect hair. The heart of this silly romp, made in partnership with MTV Studios, is Lily Collins, an ebullient Midwestern American, completely clueless as she attempts to fit into the ways of suave Parisians. 

Collins plays the Emily of the title, a millennial Chicagoan who has a strict routine of jogging five miles in 41 minutes and rising in the ranks of the Gilbert Group, a Chicago-based marketing firm. Her specialties are pharmaceutical and geriatric care products. She also seems to have a solid relationship. Then life takes a new turn when her boss suddenly becomes pregnant. This throws a wrench into plans involving her superior’s one-year assignment in Paris with Savoir, a French marketing firm just acquired by the Gilbert Group. But not to worry, Emily instantly grabs at the opportunity to go. She may not speak a word of French, but is entrusted with the gig. She soon arrives in Paris, where at the Savoir offices she meets her new boss, Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) and staffers that include Julien (Samuel Arnold) and Luc (Bruno Gouery). They instantly notice that Emily is both aloof about anything French and wouldn’t even know how to market Savoir’s brand of products. For Emily it’s hard to comprehend the minutiae of the local culture, in terms of everything from landlords to sexual banter in the office. There’s also the hunky neighbor, Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), who will tug at Emily’s heart as much as France challenges her sensibilities. 

“Emily in Paris” has a strangely dual personality when it comes to stereotypes. On the one hand it’s full of Parisian stereotypes that have been played out in everything from other tired rom-coms to action movies, on the other hand Emily embodies every stereotype about Americans that the French probably have. As conceived by Darren Star, this is one of the year’s most oddly entertaining yet annoying characters. Collins has the sweet demeanor and sass necessary for a comedic go-getter, but at the same time there’s not much to actually like about her Emily character. She’s like a transfer from the side characters of other silly Star shows such as “Beverly Hills, 90210,” lacking insights beyond her obsession with updating her Instagram account. She also lacks the boldness of Star’s crowning achievement, HBO’s “Sex & the City.” Emily spends most of the show critiquing French norms, or what the show thinks they are, such as lots of flirting at the office, penis jokes and a leisurely approach to work. At one point she even takes it upon herself to criticize the French language and how “le vagin” is too masculine a term. This does lead to an absurdly wacky bit where Brigitte Macron agrees with Emily online. Lost potential abounds in moments like Emily trying to explain #MeToo to her work team, who she offers a penis-shaped cake as a response to a similar prank. The characters, even Sylvie, reply with bland self-explanations that simply fuel more Parisian stereotyping. Ashley Park delivers a slightly more enjoyable performance as Mindy, a young Chinese woman, who once had dreams of being a pop singer, but has now left behind her family’s wealth and is earning a living as a nanny in Paris. Mindy becomes Emily’s only friend as Emily lectures the French on their ways.

If you have already been to Paris, this show will also feature nothing other than the usual American travel guide highlights. For those who know nothing about the city this is not the best place to start. A few funny moments shine through the clichés, mostly classic rom-com nuggets like Emily’s shower being broken and the landlady refusing to promptly fix it, which of course leads to Gabriel offering his shower as a substitute. Viewers who just want to escape with 30-minute chapters of cotton candy writing might bask in the romantic triangles that ensue between Emily, a client linked to Sylvie, and Gabriel. As you can imagine, Emily’s American boyfriend couldn’t stand a year doing long distance, so she’s free to indulge in those seductive French temptations. Gabriel is more attractive in the heroic, romantic comedy sense anyway. He is a buzz-worthy chef from Normandy and dreams of opening his own Paris restaurant. Oh, and as required, he is also involved with a blonde French woman. While “Emily in Paris” can be ridiculously painful to watch, it’s not all boring, and surely you can get a good chortle out of a plot that crescendos in the final episode with a catty fashion designer giving Sylvie and the company headaches, until he unleashes his bizarre new fashion line. The season finale inevitably leaves the door open for another round involving Gabriel, his dreams, Emily’s dreams, and the extra baggage girlfriend that you can’t help but like.

“Emily in Paris” is not really about an American in France, it’s about YA fantasies of such a thing happening to them. This would not be much of a problem if Star and MTV had taken advantage of the Netflix route and made something juicier and more challenging. Clichés can be more fun when pulled off with a bit of an edge, and some vetted writing. Over the last four years we Americans have become quite the butt of the world’s jokes, maybe we should master the craft of laughing at ourselves a little better.

Emily in Paris” season one begins streaming Oct. 2 on Netflix.