The ‘Meta-emptiness’ of Emily in Paris

Can the joyfully escapist Netflix show also argue for the importance of escapism?

Lily Collins as Emily Cooper in "Emily in Paris" laughs with a friend while drinking champagne in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Netflix / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

When the first season of Netflix’s Emily in Paris debuted in October 2020, it was met with both delight and ridicule: delight at its escapism into sunny France and away from the election and pandemic, but also ridicule at Lily Collins’s bubbly American abroad blithely Instagramming her croissants by the Seine. (“The whole city looks like Ratatouille!”)

These reactions are not mutually exclusive though, as Emily in Paris’s many conflicted fans can attest. So with the arrival of a second season, three writers with very different opinions of the series sit down to laugh at, and with, the show. They also attempt to process its exact appeal: guilty pleasure? Hate-watch? Self-aware commentary on luxury?

Listen to staff writers Sophie Gilbert, Spencer Kornhaber, and Megan Garber discuss here:

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Emily in Paris.

Sophie Gilbert: Today we are talking about Emily in Paris. This is the most literal show I think I’ve ever seen. The premise is there in the name. Emily in Paris follows Emily Cooper, a young marketing executive played by Lily Collins. As part of a last-minute opportunity at work, Emily moved from Chicago to Paris. She doesn’t speak the language. She doesn’t understand the customs. She is charmed by France and, with notable exceptions, France is vaguely charmed by her.

Emily makes friends. She has triumphs and failures. She eats croissants. She gains a bazillion Instagram followers by posting pictures of herself in front of the Louvre (which has never worked for me, so I respect the hustle). Mostly, she enjoys Paris as only an American can and, of course, everything is there on Instagram. The show has been a hit, at least according to the metrics Netflix uses, but it’s also been divisive. Megan, what did you think of the show?

Megan Garber: Oh, that’s a big question. I would make a distinction between the first and second seasons. I absolutely hated the first. I wanted escapism. I wanted a frilly meringue of a show. I wanted a confection set in beautiful Paris. And the show sort of gave us that, but it also gave, like, “American in Paris” who just sort of inflicts her Americanness on everyone. And everyone learns from her, but she learns precisely nothing from anyone else. It really left me disappointed.

I do think though, in the second season, they’ve taken some of the criticisms to heart. I think that the show got a lot better, a lot more nuanced, a lot more complex. It gave more agency to the French characters, which changed things a lot for me.

Gilbert: What about you, Spencer? Can you please explain your fandom of this show?

Spencer Kornhaber: Okay, now you’ve outed me as a fan, though I believe I first became aware of it from you, Sophie. You DMed me about this show filled with attractive people that I should watch. That’s how it started for me, and like a lot of people in 2020 when this premiered, I heard about it as this cringe-watch phenomenon before I actually watched it.

And then I watched it. I cringed, but I watched it. I watched the entire season very quickly, and then I found myself and my friends going back and rewatching portions of the season throughout the coming year of political crises and virus variants. It’s the one Netflix-era show that I have gone back to just to soothe various anxieties and waste time and make fun of what’s on my TV but also appreciate it. I also devoured Season 2 very quickly. Even though I cringe at the show a lot, I refuse to say that I don’t like it, because I watch it. And if you don’t like what you watch, you’re being incoherent and we are past that era of guilty pleasure. So I will not apologize for the show, even though I bet in the course of this conversation, I will apologize for it a lot.

Gilbert: I’m glad that you mentioned the idea of the guilty pleasure, because I don’t think we should feel guilty for finding things pleasurable. My difficulty with Emily in Paris is I don’t find it pleasurable. I’m cringing too hard, and I have to say I have the opposite experience to you, Megan. Season 1, I was able to really enjoy. I think Entertainment Weekly described it kind of perfectly as “a five-hour brain vacation.” It was October 2020 when Season 1 came out. No one had been anywhere in a bazillion years. And so the idea of being in Paris not thinking about COVID just seemed very fun. It was a delightful aesthetic experience.

Watching the show really is like all the accounts you follow on Instagram. You kind of hate them, but everything’s beautiful and immaculately curated, and everyone’s stylish and skinny and sparkly. But Season 2 I have just absolutely hated. And I think it’s the literalism. It’s the fact that no person in this show has any kind of characteristic beyond the things that they’re doing. Can you say a single thing about Emily? She likes her job. She works hard. She takes Instagram pictures. She wears stupid clothes. Is there anything more to her than that?

Kornhaber: So you want interiority?

Gilbert: I mean Darren Star created the show, and he’s obviously the man behind Sex and the City; Beverly Hills, 90210; and Younger. And these were shows that, for all their flaws, had recognizable characters within them, people who were complex human beings with lives and dreams and flaws and hopes. They had passions beyond gaining a following, getting a promotion, and moving back to Chicago to marry a boring finance-bro boyfriend. And so, what I’m missing from Season 2 is that no character has anything governing them. Emily’s French boss, Sylvie, is spiteful and has cigarettes. Gabriel has a restaurant. What do you see in the show, Spencer?

Kornhaber: I don’t think that this is a show with a lot of emotional content. I think that the pleasure of the show is watching these projections of ideas and cultural aesthetics and stereotypes interact with each other on a surface level. There is a little bit of character motivation for these people. The chef Gabriel is sort of an arrogant prick who we love, but he’s driven by his passions, firstly for Emily but also to go out on his own. The conflict in the first season is his desire to be independent, even if that meant leaving Paris and opening a restaurant elsewhere.

And then Sylvie, who’s hilarious to watch, kind of screws things up by sleeping with clients and the people she works with. And that’s a weird thing to see humanized and sympathized with on television in 2022, but if we’re talking about emotions and desires, you have a glimpse of it there. But I agree with you that you basically have no sense that Emily has any feelings of her own other than that she loves to run, to add things to her résumé, and to take Instagram posts for the likes.

Garber: What’s so frustrating to me about this show is that I think it wants to engage so many interesting questions. It’s set in this world of image management, of branding, of manufactured illusion and desire, right? And that’s such an interesting setting for a show that’s in some ways about an Instagram account and in some ways about turning a very complicated city into a setting. And I think one of the questions it’s getting at is authenticity. What does it mean to be authentic?

In Gabriel’s case, I think the show wants to argue that he’s an artist having to reconcile with what it means to be an artist in the culinary world. You need funding for your restaurant. And you can make the same argument about all the fashion people in this show. But Emily in Paris never actually explores any of that in detail. It’s aware of it at the margins, but it just never goes into depth. And that’s what’s so frustrating! It’s like this meta-emptiness to it where it’s just levels and levels of anti-depth.

Kornhaber: (Laughs.)

Garber: And I think I would actually be fine with that if it were just operating on those terms. The first season was much worse with this kind of stuff. Every character was simply a collection of stereotypes. Emily, for all her personal emptiness, was in other ways a very bluntly characteristic American: optimistic, works too hard, rugged individualist—this collection of stereotypes about what it means to be American. And by the same count, a lot of the French characters were collections of stereotypes about French people. And if the show itself were just sort of operating on this surface level of branding and image, I would have been fine with it.

But they wanted to have it both ways. They wanted it to be this frilly, escapist concoction of a show that you shouldn’t read too much into. But on the other hand, they wanted to make it a referendum about what it means to be American, what it means to be French, how those two cultures should interact. And again and again, it was Emily winning the day, at least in my read. It was people admitting to Emily that she had things right. She always had the best idea for the marketing campaign. And her winning optimistic attitude was what French people should adopt. It’s working at these basic questions of how people should live, so it made it really hard for me to take the show as just a frilly concoction and bit of escapism.

Kornhaber: I hear what you’re saying, but I think it’s a little strong to say this show is trying to be a referendum on anything, or trying to make a statement about what it is to be American or French in any forceful way. It is absolutely about those things, but we live in this era when we talk about culture all the time in our political discourse, in terms of tribal identity and how culture is wound up with capitalism and racism. There’s a heavy lens on discussions of culture right now, and this show, for better or for worse, dials that discussion back a few decades. What if culture is just sort of this layer on top of our human experiences that lightly flavors our lives? What if we have a comedy of manners about someone who’s a little too into their work and thinks about their work as their whole identity coming into this culture built around working to live instead of living to work?

And what if it doesn’t treat it like the end of the world? It’s not this gargantuan culture clash. It’s a kind of balancing act. One side learns a little from the other. And I agree with that. Season 1 felt kind of bizarrely pro-American, where Emily doesn’t really seem to have to learn too many lessons. Everyone comes to her point of view that you should just make an Instagram poll out of everything, I suppose.

Garber: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: But in Season 2, it’s exactly what you’re saying, Megan. She’s having to learn her lessons, but without it being life or death. It doesn’t matter. And that’s what I think allows the show to be the frilly concoction that it can be.

Gilbert: There’s definitely a place to tell these kinds of stories that are just entertaining and fun and escapist, but at the same time, they don’t have to be as really strangely bad as this one is. It’s just a bunch of ideas being batted around in a game of televisual ping-pong. There are culture clashes of Gen Z anxiety or ideas about gender, like back in Season 1 when Emily found out that vagina in French was a masculine noun.

Kornhaber: I remember! She says, “Your language is seriously effed up.”

Garber: But in a subtle way, that doesn’t condemn either culture. (Laughs.)

Gilbert: There are all these hints at how it could be a better, smarter, still fluffy, still very entertaining show. But it’s just so poorly executed. There’s so much missing in it for me. And especially in Season 2. Season 1 at least had the formulaic structure of a recognizable television show, but Season 2 has just been very wacky structurally. There’s a lot going on and none of it makes sense. I am cringing through everything. I’m not enjoying the clothes. Sex and the City at least had things that human beings who are creative and stylish might occasionally wear, whereas Emily in Paris … I don’t know what to say. There are a lot of golf gloves this season. There are a lot of Kangol and bucket hats. There’s a scene where Mindy wears a fuchsia houndstooth, cheap dress with matching gloves for no good reason. It’s just kind of baffling. What do you guys think of the fashion? Are you enjoying it? Is it aesthetically troubling to you? Does it seem like Barbie dolls being dressed up? I think BuzzFeed had a really good description of it as “’90s Barbie meets JoJo Siwa.”

Kornhaber: I’m not an expert on the subject, but the fashion is wacky and horrifying for sure. I mean, the patterns that she puts on her body are like …

Gilbert: Like a magic-eye picture from the ’90s.

Kornhaber: Yeah, it’s just overload. But is that not the whole thing? Patricia Field is the stylist for this show and for Sex and the City. The clothes she uses aren’t meant to represent anything about how people actually dress. They’re a fantastical romp through an expensive closet with emphasis on engaging the eyeballs.

Gilbert: I would agree with that, but it made more sense in the context of Sex and the City, which was late ’90s/early ’00s and very much mired in consumerism and labels. Emily in Paris just feels out of date to me now when you think about how people actually dress. People wear fast fashion. They creatively recycle clothes. They wear vintage in so many interesting ways. And then Emily comes along in her bright-yellow bucket hat with a Bonjour! It just seems troubling to me in a way I can’t quite describe aesthetically.

Garber: This show is sort of pointing out the arbitrariness of taste though, right? Taste is sometimes a cudgel used against people. And there is something kind of interestingly tautological about the outfits in the show, in the sense of: If Emily in Paris says this is fashion, that in itself becomes kind of a referendum. It points out how arbitrary fashion itself can be, how so much about the fashion world and its fantasies are manufactured.

Gilbert: My thing about the fashion, too, is that it also makes no sense. I mean, the whole point of Emily, we’re told in Season 1, is that she’s the consummate oat-milk-latte-sipping, yoga-pants-wearing basic bitch. All the ideas of the basic American woman are embodied within Emily. And yet her fashion is like a toddler getting lost in Vivienne Westwood’s closet. Nothing in the show is really fully conceived. Nothing in the show really makes sense. It’s chaos. It’s absolute chaos.

Kornhaber: She’s basic and she’s tacky, and those are two related concepts, but they’re not necessarily the same thing. And in the world of the show, the French people are dressed a little more reservedly, but they’re dressed finely. And Emily is dressed like this clownfish, making it extremely plain what the show is doing. She is the tacky ringarde problem in this same-y chic zeitgeist and the show plays with that tension.

Gilbert: I have to say, in Season 2, I’ve really enjoyed Kate Walsh’s character, Madeline. She’s Emily’s boss, who comes to Paris in her crazy-tight, leopard-print, heavily pregnant outfits. And I did laugh at the fact that she is always eating all the time. The constant carrots on the go. That was the best kind of satire the show’s ever done. But, generally, if it’s got anything meaningful to say about any kind of culture clash, I haven’t been able to discern it yet.

Kornhaber: It goes back and forth on this question from the first episode. Emily and her colleague Luc have this conversation at a café about very simplistic themes: Luc thinks America is all about working. Emily says it’s a balance, but Luc says the Americans have the wrong balance: They live to work while the French work to live.

And I think the show doesn’t have a real point of view; it’s just feeling it out. But I do think it’s moving toward complicating itself and maybe having to say something at the end of Season 2 when Madeline comes in. She’s the representative for the corporate bosses in America who own the marketing firm that Emily came to work for. Sylvie’s been running the place for a long time. It seems like she’s been doing a good job at maintaining these relationships with very prestigious clients and keeping them happy. But she’s not seeing the bottom line enough. She’s not charging them enough. She’s building the brand based on personal relationships. She’s valuing prestige and quality over the bottom line. And so the American comes in and takes a harsh stance on that.

So there is a culture clash about something more than just how people interact in a room and whether you can talk about work at parties. It’s about money and about the things we value in a society. And I will be interested to see how that plays out. Right now, you’re rooting for the French side of that, and I would say, rightly so. This show is still kind of circling these ideas without having to come down on either side. But if it did, I don’t think it would be successful. It would be a think piece, not a comedy.