The pilot episode of ABC's new social media-themed comedy Selfie is so blunt and gross, it's almost daring people to dismiss it on sight. Our heroine Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) is a sales rep bragging about her hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, but her pride quickly takes a massive fall. She realizes her boyfriend is already married, accidentally bathes her legs in vomit, and is laughed off an airplane by her coworkers. Eliza's obsession with status duly undercut, we proceed to the actual premise of the show: She wants her firm's PR specialist Henry (John Cho) to make her over into a decent human who people might actually like, rather than "like."
If you haven't guessed it from the names, Selfie updates Pygmalion—but this contemporary Eliza is no working-class flower girl who needs to pass for royalty, and this Henry isn't taking her up as some gentleman's bet. Creator Emily Kapnek has Eliza make the decision to update her image, but that still sticks the show with a premise that could get creepy fast: a man tailing a woman around, yelling at her to behave.
It's a little strange to see a contemporary sitcom take up the template of George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play and its well-remembered 1956 musical adaptation My Fair Lady, given how domineering and borderline abusive the central relationship between Eliza and Henry is. In Pygmalion, speech expert Higgins works to pass Eliza off as a duchess to satisfy a bet, but becomes both her replacement father figure (her own dad is a money-grubbing drunk) and faux-husband (who relies on her to keep his house in order). It's a powerful but abrasive tale of Eliza seizing her independence and Higgins learning some humility, with an indefinite ending that doesn't really suggest happy romance is to come for the pair. My Fair Lady sands many of the harsher edges off to make their relationship more conventionally romantic, but it's still a story of a man taking months to realize he cares about a woman who he spends the whole time ordering around like a servant.
In Selfie, Henry's skill with phonetics has been modernized into his occupation as a "branding expert." Eliza's gutter dialect and Cockney accent has become sexual promiscuity and the language of social media; she drops phrases like "hashtag The Struggle" into conversation and wears plastic cutlets in her underwear to accentuate the goods. When the two meet, Eliza introduces herself thusly: "I'm Eliza, I work in sales, and it recently came to my attention that I have poor instincts, a weak stomach, no real friends, and-"
"Loose sexual morals?" Henry interjects.
It's a weirdly judgmental tack to start off with, but Henry has to be a cruel, priggish, and square for the Pygmalion premise to make any sense in the modern day. He's known, we learn, for reviving the most doomed products ("our nasal spray caused Satanic hallucinations, and you fixed that!" Eliza cries). Since this is age of corporate personhood, Henry decides to think of Eliza as a busted brand in need of fixing. How else could the show justify him saying he wants to "transform her from a vapid, despised social-media narcissist into a valued and respected woman of stature"? If Eliza is instead a product that needs to be salvaged, maybe his work won't entirely come off as a man telling a woman how to act properly so she can be more "acceptable."
The show’s at its most troubling when it comes to Eliza's aforementioned "loose sexual morals." It's one thing for Henry to point out to Eliza that she's a little self-obsessed and doesn't pay attention to the office's friendly secretary when she tries to strike up a conversation. We could all likely benefit from paying a little more attention to the people around us. But the Selfie goes overboard on Eliza's perceived "sluttiness." Again in the opening minutes, Henry asks another employee how Eliza is their most successful sales rep. "That's the magic of the miniskirt, no one's immune," the co-worker snarks. He adds that Eliza hasn't figured out she's sleeping with a married man because "she's too busy making sure her lipstick matches her thong."
Pygmalion was written in 1912, and sought to prick a pin in the absurd rigidity of British class stratification. Selfie is airing in 2014, and maybe shouldn't have opened on a conversation that boils down a woman's undeniable success to her matching thong. But to the show's credit, Henry is not being presented as some unimpeachable moral authority. Eliza's going to Henry as the expert to "fix" her, but much as in Pygmalion, the implication is that she'll "fix" him back—the closing lines of the pilot are Henry bleating, "You shouldn't be compelled to make everything so sexual!" and Eliza responding, "And you shouldn't be so uptight." If Selfie's story arc also revolves around Eliza shaking Henry out of his prudishness, that would help excuse some of the more cringe-worthy "slut-shaming" moments of the pilot.
Many of the problems with Selfie's premise recalled Kapnek's last show Suburgatory, which also mixed aggressive stereotyping with warm-hearted characterization. In that sitcom, single dad George (Jeremy Sisto) discovered a condom in his daughter's bedroom and made a snap decision to move her to the suburbs, which they quickly realized were populated with shallow, image-obsessed Stepford Wives and air-headed jocks with bleached teeth. Suburgatory thrived because it worked to give its spray-tanned ensemble some depth, making its members into more than just caricatures.
Selfie has similarly exciting potential, and it's wrapped in an equally reductive package. Gillan's crackling performance as Eliza is a worthy heir to the heroine of Pygmalion, but with the added advantage of existing in the modern age. Eliza's powerlessness was a crucial part of Shaw's play, but there's nothing to stop Selfie from upending that. If it can ease up on Henry's hectoring lectures and strike a real balance of respect between the two characters, Selfie could be of real worth. Let Eliza take some ownership in the things she's doing well (she's the top sales rep for a reason, right?) and have Henry's crucial mission be to help ground her, rather than control her. That's a dynamic that Selfie could wring memorable storylines out of for a long time.