'Selfie' premiere react: It's not just Eliza who needs help
You’ve seen the basic story of Selfie before—it’s the modern-day My Fair Lady. Karen Gillan plays an updated, self-absorbed, Instagram-obsessed Eliza while John Cho serves as the titular Henry. Along with Selfie, fall’s TV lineup has seen a surge in the rom-com sitcom, including NBC’s A to Z and ABC’s other romantic endeavor, Manhattan Love Story. It would seem love is in the air… just not about Selfie. EW’s Esther Zuckerman and Kat Ward discuss whether the show can be saved from itself.
Esther: I will admit that on first watch—perhaps because of my extremely low expectations—I was almost pleasantly surprised by Selfie. It simply wasn’t as horrible as I thought it was going to be based on its promotional material. And despite the millennial-shaming, the 2009 Lady Gaga references, and the terrible sexual politics, I still think there may be something there. I’m not necessarily sure if the show can be salvaged, but here are some things I liked: The Fear of Flying reference, the line “If I am bagel, you are schmear” uttered to Neal from Freaks and Geeks, Karen Gillan in general, John Cho in general.
Things I don’t like: the barf (just because ew), the underlying notion that social media is only for stupid and vain people, and the concept that a female character has to be fixed by a man even if she’s doing so voluntarily. The show is (sort of) a take on the old Pygmalion/My Fair Lady set up, but in both of those works Henry Higgins actually has something to offer Eliza Doolittle in the form of vocal training. In the world of Selfie, Cho’s Henry really has no specific set of skills to bestow upon Eliza; he’s simply a good salesman and happens not to be an Instagram-famous narcissist.
Unfortunately, the elements of the show I don’t like are ultimately more meaningful than the elements I do like, but I saw potential in the second half of the episode. Though there’s something retrograde about Eliza’s nerd-to-mean girl trajectory, the notion that her character was someone who funneled her social anxiety into a love of games that transformed into a love of social media actually does make her less of a caricature to me. Gillan, who I wish could use her charming Scottish accent here, finally tones down the vocal fry for the more intimate scenes toward the end of the pilot and Eliza suddenly becomes a real person.
The problem is the show just has so much to overcome. The audience is supposed to think that Henry is obnoxious in his own way, but his social crimes pale in comparison to Eliza’s. If they can somehow get on even footing and begin to learn from one another in their interactions, the show might find a rhythm. That doesn’t mean they have to be good people, but they need to be equal people. (Selfie maybe should take some cues from You’re the Worst.)
The show also cannot be all about Eliza’s Internet-y vocabulary, which gets me to another flaw that’s ingrained in the show: Yes, we live in a world where at least one person is famous for taking “belfies” on Instagram, but I’m not sure people like Eliza actually exist. Technology and social media is integrated far more naturally into the lives of most people, even the ones who are more obsessed with it than others.
Kat, tell me, am I completely crazy?
Kat: You’re definitely not #cray. (Did I use that right?) I think I came into Selfie from almost the exact opposite pole as you, in that my expectations for the show were too high. I am a big fan of John Cho, and as a Doctor Who fan, I was really excited to see Karen Gillan get a big platform in the U.S. Plus showrunner Emily Kapnek has got a strong smart-sitcom pedigree, coming from Parks and Rec and Suburgatory. And there were some things that fulfilled that promise: that they all work in some sort of loopy kiddie pharma company whose products make you go full Linda Blair; those wedding vows; John Cho’s strong bow tie game; the Cho-Gillan chemistry, which hints at both screwball comedy gold and believable emotional connection.
Some of my pet peeves: the excess use of pop-up texts, flags, and hashtags that flicked all over the screen; the lazy race jokes; the title, which is vintage Bad ABC Show Titling (RIP Trophy Wife, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23…); and Eliza herself.
Gillan is a game and lovely actress, with a little flair for physical comedy that makes such objectively gross scenes as the barf walk of shame (agreed, total ew) more palatable. There are moments where she infuses her Eliza Dooley with an undercurrent of sadness and anxiety under that cocky, blown-out bravado and makes her human. But they’re only moments. By and large, as written, Eliza is a vapid monster who talks like a parody of a millennial. In My Fair Lady—or should I say She’s All That, to keep with the show’s dated-reference theme?—the leading lady is a quality person who, with a little help, can show that to the world. Here, the show’s done precious little to convince me Eliza’s got a personality worth redeeming—or even an internally consistent personality, full stop.
And ohhhh, man, the weird sexual politics. On the one hand, someone in the writer’s room has read Erica Jong. On the other, the show seems to have no idea where it falls on the sex-shaming/sex-positive spectrum. Henry comes right up to the line of calling Eliza a slut, but in the very first scene she freaks out because she finds out the man she was hooking up with was married and didn’t tell her. (A calculated lie of omission on his part, I’d like to point out, which goes completely unremarked upon.) She’s chided for lurid innuendo, but refers to the previously mentioned fling as a boyfriend. As one of the Hipster Book Clubettes notes, “She defines herself by her sexuality, and I think it’s the least interesting thing about her.” Listen to your own dialogue show! It will show you the way! Stop trying to figure out who Eliza is sleeping with and whether she should be excoriated for it. Get to those slim bits that really work—namely, those last few two-hander scenes between Cho and Gillan.
Esther, you’re dead on about the potential. Who has not stood awkwardly in the kitchen at a party and cycled through their Instagram a few thousand times until their friends arrive? Social media as a too-convenient mask for hiding anxiety feels like an honest observation from which a writer can spin off some more caricatured bits. But, I feel like Selfie takes too long to get there—and is way too tempted by the easy allure and easier jokes of “social media makes us all famewhores.”