Friday, September 26, 2014

Pilot Season: Selfie (Terrible Premise, Great Actors)

Well, having now seen the first episode of Selfie, ABC's blatant attempt to reach a Millennial audience by pandering to what they think we like, I can confirm that yes, it is exactly what you think it is. Broadly written, full of comic gags that were obviously written by writers in their forties or so who are only vaguely aware of the inner-workings of Snapchat, and probably first heard about Instagram from one of their younger, cooler friends. It's instantly dated, snidely pandering, and weirdly enjoyable.

I really do mean that last part, as much as it makes me deeply uncomfortable to admit. Because I wouldn't go so far as to say that Selfie is a good show. It's not. But it is strangely fun. I think part of the reason comes down to the fact that, no matter how insultingly the thing is written, the show cast Karen Gillan and John Cho as its leads, and those two are virtually incapable of not being charming. 

The basic plot of the show is simple. Very simple. Insultingly simple, if we're being candid. It's a loose translation of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, where the crusty, upper crust Henry Higgins teaches poor, uneducated Eliza Doolittle how to be a lady. Despite the obvious problem that Higgins is not actually a lady himself. The two fall in love, because of course they do, and Eliza transforms into a beautiful and convincing member of high society. Hooray!

It's pretty much just been loosely modernized here. Our main character is Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan), a high school loser who compensated for her low self-esteem and social standing by getting super hot and becoming "insta-famous" as a blogger on Instagram. She's the sort of shallow, crudely drawn character who assumed that becoming physically attractive would solve all of her life problems. The thing is, she's right. To an extent.

Being hot has led her to her job, which she's great at, as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. She shamelessly uses her wiles to succeed and climb the corporate ladder, while sublimating all feelings of loneliness and misery by looking at her phone or her reflection in a mirror. Think Gina from Brooklyn 99, but less happy about everything.

All of this works really well, until the day it doesn't. First, Eliza finds out that the man she's dating is actually married and has been lying to her. Then she gets food poisoning. On a plane. Surrounded by her coworkers. And she ruins her dress, as well accidentally spilling multiple bags of vomit all over herself. The whole thing is immediately captured for all time by her heartless colleagues (most of whom hate her because she's kind of a terrible person), and Eliza finds herself both trending on Twitter, and more miserable than she's ever been in her life.

Speaking as someone who has actually had food poisoning on a plane, all of this was uncomfortably real. Yes, it really is that awful. Trust me. The show was weirdly accurate.

Anyway, while lying in a puddle of sadness and food poisoning in her apartment, Eliza comes to an important realization: she doesn't have any friends. I mean, she has lots of Facebook friends, but no actual real life friends who will bring her ginger ale and hold her hand while she cries. She doesn't like this realization. But she also doesn't know what to do about it.

Which is where we bring in Henry (John Cho). Henry is a marketing executive at Eliza's work, and while they know each other tangentially, they've never interacted before. Henry is uptight, intense, and weirdly formal. No one really likes Henry, but he's amazing at his job, so they tolerate him. But even his boss thinks he's weird and lonely and he makes them all feel awkward.

During a meeting where Henry is publicly lauded for saving the firm's reputation when a toxic product was banned by the FDA, Eliza realizes that a marketing specialist might be exactly the person she needs to rehabilitate her image. So she asks Henry for help. Begs, really. Begs completely shamelessly and with more than a couple insults.

At first Henry says no, but when he's reminded that he absolutely must bring a date to his next work event, because the president of the company is uncomfortable with him, he decides to give Eliza a shot. After all, he's an egomaniac, and he was just given permission to dictate every aspect of a woman's life. He's in!

Wacky hijinks obviously ensue, where Henry tries to teach Eliza basic manners and interpersonal relations (like how to have a genuine conversation that's not about her with the receptionist). It doesn't go particularly well, but they make enough progress that Henry feels comfortable asking Eliza to come to the wedding.

And that brings in a new problem. Henry hates all of Eliza's clothes, and refuses to let her wear anything short, tight, or racktastic to the wedding. So Eliza is forced to ask her neighbor, Bryn (Allyn Rachel) for help. Bryn, of course, being Eliza's social media opposite: a Pinteresting, DIY, top-knot wearing hipster. Bryn, surprisingly, says yes, because she's a sucker for a "make-under", and the girls actually get to bond when Bryn and her book club come to Eliza's apartment and turn her into, well, one of them for a day. Eliza's a little weirded out, but she also can't believe what's happening. Real life people are in her apartment, asking about her feelings, helping her get ready, even cleaning her kitchen. Is this what having friends is like?

Henry is genuinely blown away when he picks Eliza up for their wedding date, and we get the first real implication (though who actually doubted it) that they will be the ultimate ship on the show. I mean, obviously, but it's nice to know that the actors can play convincing attraction.

At the wedding, though, everything kind of goes to crap again. Eliza holds it together for a while, but while the bride (their boss' daughter) says her vows in the form of a really weird poem, she starts to fall apart. It might be a deeply cheesy sentiment, but Eliza has the sinking realization that no one is ever going to look at her the way that couple at the altar is looking at each other. And she can't deal with these emotions. They're too much. So she does what she always does, and turns to her phone. 

Which of course immediately makes a ton of noise, disrupts the ceremony, and makes both her and Henry look terrible in front of their boss, Mr. Saperstein (David Harewood). Eliza and Henry have a huge, raging fight after the ceremony, where he calls her immature and self-involved, and she calls him out on being a sanctimonious jerk. It's ugly, and they both leave miserable.

But the next day at work, Eliza finds herself having an honest to goodness real conversation with the receptionist, Charmonique (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). She realizes that whatever Henry was doing worked. She is incrementally a better person. Heck yes she wants to keep going! Being a good person feels great!

So she tracks down his house (somehow, probably creepily) and shows up in the rain to bang on his door and ask him to take her back. There's some hilarity involved where Henry pretends he can't see her, and Eliza points out that he literally lives in a glass house. Anyway, Eliza apologizes and asks Henry to start helping her again. She likes being better. And Henry apologizes too, because he realizes that she was right. He is taking out his dissatisfaction with the world on her. 

Then they fall down in the rain and laugh at each other and it's very cute and romcom. But the point is clear. Both Henry and Eliza need to change, and they need each other's help to do it. That, as far as I can tell, is the series in a nutshell.

So you see what I mean, right? It's pretty insultingly written, at least at first, but as the pilot wears on, you start to realize that these characters are too well-defined and emotionally engaging to be stereotypes. Eliza's shallow and silly, but she doesn't want to be, and that somehow makes her very compelling. Henry might be an uptight egomaniac, but that's a problem and he's called on it. 

In fact, it seems that the whole point of the show is that these two characters deeply need each other, and need each other to call them on their bad behavior. Neither of them is better than the other. And that's pretty great.

Also great? The show's casting, which is both well done and also surprisingly diverse. Three of the main characters are non-white, and only two (maybe three if you stretch it) are white. Plus I don't think I can name another network sitcom starring an Asian-American actor. I really can't. And it's a show where the main couple for which you are meant to root is an interracial couple? Just great.

It does seem a little funny to watch two titans of genre fiction acting in such a mainstream show. Gillan (Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy) and Cho (Star Trek and Sleepy Hollow) are great actors, but it's still strange to see them performing in a show utterly devoid of time travel or phasers. I mean, it's really good to see them getting recognition, but also a little odd. Just like it's kind of funny hearing Gillan doing a very convincing American accent.

The point is this: Selfie is a cynically conceived sitcom from a mainstream network that is clearly trying to draw in more young viewers by pandering to what they think our interests are. But it's also a really sweet show about two broken people trying to fix each other. So even if it is a little insulting and tactless, I think it's worth watching. It has heart.

Also it's fun watching them judge everyone together.


  1. I agree, this seems like it will be a fun, heartfelt show, even if it is a little silly. But then, sometimes we all need a nice little show like this :)
    And yay for POC representation! :) Another good reason to support the show- show the TV producers that we like shows with diversity :).

    1. Word! I am all for more shows with diverse representation!

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