ABC debuted online today a preview of the pilot of its upcoming half-hour comedy Selfie. Were the leads of this limited but endearing sitcom anyone but the entirely charming, gifted pair of John Cho and Karen Gillan, it would fall flat. Yet, because of them, and a few hints of surprising writing nuance, it ultimately rather works.
Eliza Doolittle (Karen Gillan) is a social media guru with hundreds of thousands of online followers and (as she finds out in the pilot) no real friends. When she gets food poisoning on a flight full of her co-workers and lands herself in a completely humiliating situation, she winds up recruiting her firm’s top representation manager, Henry (John Cho), to overhaul her image. It is (very) loosely based on Pygmalion or as it’s more famously known, My Fair Lady.
My biggest fear going into this was that Eliza would not be a three-dimensional character: that she’d be a frenetic caricature of the worst sort of vapid, social-media-obsessed, fashion blogger and “lifestyle” guru that we’ve all either encountered or know of. It would have been easy to make Eliza simply vapid, to use her for the quick laughs and then to gradually round her out and add dimension as the show went on. The very familiarity of her character – the fact that she is very much a “type” – make this all too easy. Yet the show doesn’t fall into that trap, a fact that I attribute to the writing of the rather marvelous Emily Kapnek, a producer who took the ungainly bones of what Suburgatory began as and turned it into a warm, oddball ensemble that worked. Eliza, despite a fundamental selfishness and a tendency to date absolutely any reasonably good-looking male in the vicinity, is not hateful or even entirely dislikable.
She starts out annoying – in the long opening sequence on the plane, and for most of the first 20 minutes of the pilot, she’s consistently tone-deaf, a little silly, and selfish. But she’s not a fake – she behaves almost exactly the same way to her neighbors, her co-workers, and the man she has a crush on. Instead, she’s someone with a very real problem – she uses technology and a constant reliance on her phone to keep herself from experiencing loneliness. In perhaps the most memorable moment of the pilot, there’s a brief flashback to her childhood during a wedding she’s attending, and a very real, raw pain leaps from the screen as she sits alone at a school dance in one of a long line of hurtful experiences, and pulls out her phone so as to escape. Her obsession with her online life is a coping mechanism developed from childhood to protect herself. And her default wavelength may be self-centeredness, but it doesn’t mean she’s not capable of kindness and empathy – simply that it’s been so long since anyone engaged with her on anything other than a superficial level that she’s forgotten it’s possible to experience anything else. Her brief interactions with a crowd of female neighbors and with a desk receptionist at work reveal an individual who, despite herself, desperately craves human connection.
She’s also intelligent, and can I just say what a relief it is that her character isn’t marginalized to a trivial job; she’s the company’s most successful sales representative, which rings true to life – like many lifestyle gurus, her talents may be specialized, but she knows how to sell a product.
Into this steps Henry, a man with his own set of (slightly more socially acceptable) issues: he’s a control freak who, like Eliza, has detachment issues. He’s one of the firm’s top marketing managers, and Eliza, hearing of his reputation, turns impulsively to him to help her. (One may ask, does Eliza need a life coach or does she need therapy? I’d argue she needs both, but since no therapist will ever have the face of John Cho, we’ll just have to go with the latter). John Cho shines in a particular moment in which he first looks at Eliza like a product in need of refurbishing – polishing and sophistication – and commandingly takes charge, a glint in his eye – in that moment, Henry Higgins peeps out.
In most ways, however, this is more Bridget Jones than My Fair Lady. Eliza is the socially challenged, apparently silly foil to Henry’s buttoned-up, reserved sophistication – and, like Bridget Jones, ably turns this on its head periodically, as when she delivers a highly cutting, articulate insult by calling Henry a “hyper-critical, workaholic coxcomb!”
The leads are both limited, one might even say crippled, by their own pathologies (she of being rejected, he of letting go of the control that defines his life), and it could be a delightful journey to watch them help each other, open each other up in those spheres.
There are two weaknesses in the show (which were self-evident really even before the pilot debuted). The first is that a great deal of the show’s charm is predicated on liking the lead actors. Those who come in with no prior experience with, or disliking either Karen Gillan or John Cho may find themselves unimpressed. Secondly – men may like this less than women. There is going to be a lot of discussion centering on fashion, female friendships, communication styles, relational nuances, romance, etc. Further, this isn’t an ensemble cast like New Girl or even The Mindy Project – it’s a sitcom, but it’s not about a group of friends or a pseudo-family hobnobbing along – it’s about two charming but lonely people coming together, which could provide something new to our TV screens, but may also limit the show’s range and therefore its audience. It’s not ribald, it’s not a laugh-a-minute, it’s not hugely plot-driven – it’s frothy and fun with a delicate directorial touch and the potential for something more. Also, John Cho and Karen Gillan have an easy chemistry in the final scene, though only time will tell whether that develops into a sparkling or intense affair. It’s doubtful that it will be a smash hit, but it may carve out a faithful niche of devoted followers.
Watch the pilot at ABC Go.
Selfie premieres Tuesday September 30.