Selfie is to Pygmalion what Clueless is to Emma. At least, that’s what the show wishes it were. And it’s trying, and there are glimmers on tonight’s premiere of it almost getting there — but Eliza Dooley (get it??????) is not quite Cher Horowitz. Yet.
Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan stars as Eliza, vapid and social-media-obsessed, though still recovering from being called “most butt” in her yearbook. The constant Instagramming and hashtagging is a way to compensate for how insecure and lonely she is, a point the show hammers home over and over; earning “likes” is not the same thing as being liked, though I’m not sure that any living human has truly confused the two. If one has, I’m not sure I want to watch a show about him or her. John Cho is Henry Higgs, her slightly uptight colleague who prioritizes polite conversation over texting or whatever dumb crap it is people do on their phones all day, hurf durf, instead of having real interactions. There’s a level of exhaustion here already: I don’t need Selfie to belabor the misguided idea that the internet is somehow not real life. Rude is rude online and in meatspace! Good manners are good manners, period! I wish this show would acknowledge that, because women make up a majority of the users of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, that maybe — maybe? — women and men have different experiences and expectations for social media versus offline interactions. Participating in female-majority activities can be affirming and worthwhile, even if some dudes don’t think so! Selfie instead goes for the same “texting bad, chitchat good” line over and over. No, thank you, show.
Pygmalion and its most popular adaptation, My Fair Lady, are about economic class and code-switching. Eliza’s not vapid, she’s poor, and the dismantling of an oppressive caste system by pointing out its arbitrary gate-keeping is a good thing. On Selfie, the goal is a lot less noble, and setting the show within a marketing firm only highlights this. If Eliza can just follow Henry’s instructions, she, too, can be better at marketing! What a prize!
I’m being hard on this show because, as a strict but wonderful social-studies teacher tells an unmoored seventh-grader, I see its potential and think it’s capable of greater things. So much of this show is completely darling; Gillan, working with a mostly good American accent, has so much charisma and charm, she’s almost able to endear Eliza to us. Cho is a natural romantic lead (quick, someone tell Hollywood), and the two of them together have a fun opposites-attract vibe. I am inclined to love them, which is more than half the battle. Creator Emily Kapnek’s slight cynicism and ear for quick visual gags is as present here as it was on the underappreciated, secretly terrific Suburgatory. Unfortunately, though, the shows share a similar tonal crisis, an unwillingness to commit to one kind of reality: Selfie needs to be either a little more grounded or a little more campy depending on what it wants to highlight, but this in-between kinda-real-kinda-bubblegum world makes everyone seem slightly out of place. But there’s a good show in here somewhere, and while it’s never going to be My Fair Lady, Selfie could still be loverly.