Paris has long been the staging ground for a particular sort of American fantasy, one that tends to bring the characteristics of Americans into sharp relief. In the final episodes of “Sex and the City,” to cite one example, Carrie Bradshaw attempts a warm embrace of all the City of Light has to offer, but finds that she may in fact be too warm, that the cool briskness of Paris is making her someone she does not recognize. It’s only by realizing what she can never be — Parisian — that Carrie rediscovers herself.
So it is with “Emily in Paris,” a show that uses the city to depict a young woman coming into her own, even and especially as she recognizes that aspect within herself that will never quite fit into her new surroundings. As created by Darren Star (the mastermind of lush fantasies including “Younger” and, yes, “Sex and the City”), this series is a delight that poses the question of what it really means to grow up, against a truly inviting backdrop.
The Emily of the title is played by Lily Collins, and is drawn with every classic trait associated with millennials: rootless and ambitious enough to take a transfer to a foreign city when her co-worker (Kate Walsh) cannot, blithely confident enough to operate there even without knowing French. In France to work on social media marketing of luxury goods, Emily does a poor job of selling herself to co-workers, who generally view her with spuriousness, but a great job building her brand online. Who cares what the locals think when a growing cadre of admirers view Emily as just fabulous?
And yet her time in France — for all that she doesn’t speak the language — is not solely about image. Emily sparks up a real friendship with an equally world-conquering young woman (Ashley Park) who is a nanny; she works to win over her boss (Philippine Leroy Beaulieu); she finds herself in a love triangle, whose other two members’ effortless chic (they’re played by Camille Razat and Lucas Bravo) only emphasizes how much Emily has to try.
Collins makes the struggle to be oneself compelling — she’s an inherently winsome performer who has never been quite as well used as she is here. She even makes Emily’s unlikable traits (for instance, other than that it is easier for an American audience to watch a show where the characters speak English, there’s no reason Emily shouldn’t at least try to learn French) into demonstrations of will. Her steeliness brushes up appealingly against the show’s more confectionary aspects. Through Emily’s eyes, we see a Paris that’s deliciously itself; the city also brings out the strength of her character, proof of a show that’s significantly better written than it strictly needed to be in order to please the audience. “Emily in Paris” borrows escapist charm from its setting, but is sophisticated, too, in ways all its own.