OK, let me say this first: I love John Cho. I have spoken before about his excellent stretched-neck acting in Sleepy Hollow. I love Karen Gillan. While I had
many, god, so many some issues with Amy Pond, I always thought she did a great job with the character, and she was fun as Nebula in GoTG. And here, again, they do their best, but this thing was doomed from the start. Do we seriously need a new version of Pygmalion? Do we need “older stuffy dude angrily mansplains life to a young woman who’s trying to figure herself out”?
Eliza Dooley (get it?) is a young woman who spent her youth nerdy and friendless until she She’s All That-ed herself into a shallow narcissist PR person with great hair. While on some sort of business trip (that somehow in today’s economy includes most of the people in her company) she sleeps with a married exec, discovers he’s married, pukes into multiple airsickness bags in shock, and then, when the bags all simultaneously break, finds herself trapped on airplane covered in puke while all of her jackass coworkers laugh at her.
Actually, they don’t just laugh at her, they Instagram and Snapchat and Tweet and quite possibly Tinder her mishap until her internet life is ruined. This is a plane full of grown-ass adults, doing this. Did I mention that John Cho and his friend slut-shame her for sleeping with the married exec? And comment on how she doesn’t know he’s married, as though somehow (a) it’s funny, and (b) it’s her fault he’s deceiving her? Did I mention that it’s implied that she’s sleeping her way toward some sort of top, even though she has a huge internet presence and gives every outward appearance of being great at her job?
Did I also mention that the show mocks her for being in sales, even though her mentor, John Cho, is in marketing, which is, um, sales? And that John Cho is a Marketing Genius Who has Just Saved the Company By Rebranding a Medicine With Awful Side-Effects, but also hates social media? Like rails against it at length to anyone who will listen. You know, like all right-minded Marketing Geniuses! Oh, and he’s apparently Selfie‘s moral paragon, even though he’s being paid by his company to lie about the aforementioned horrible side-effects?
Christ. I need a nap.
So, Eliza goes to Henry, tells her that in the wake of her internet-friendly puke-fest she couldn’t get a single friend to bring her ginger ale IRL. What’s it all about, if none of your virtual friends will help you in the meatspace? (I’m keeping meatspace, dammit, I don’t care if it’s an outdated term…) He looks at her like she’s a particularly uncute ant, and then agrees to help her reform her image, but only if she does exactly what he tells her with no backsass, which, ick. She goes along with it, and by working hard to look exactly like everyone else, she gains his grudging approval! Until she fucks it up by having emotions at a wedding, and channeling them into inappropriate behavior! But then she fixes it by acting like she’s in a mid-90s romcom! And we end with them laughing in the rain like they’ve made some sort of connection, except we still have no idea who they are, and why we should care about their respective arcs.
Eliza was unattractive and unpopular in school, and looked to her tamagotchi for comfort. This is a very easy way to gain sympathy for the character—if she was a nerdy girl who was tortured for her nerdiness, so went shallow and mean to defend herself, I could invest in the show. Having been a tortured nerd-girl, I could completely relate to her, and then root for her to get back in touch with the nice nerd trapped inside the gorgeous redhead. Instead, it seems like being made fun of taught her that the only value in life was to be popular. So when she goes to ask John Cho for help it is literally that she wants to rebrand herself, because she thinks of herself as a product to be marketed to people, rather than a person with, I don’t know, a soul or an identity or something.
Henry is such a sourpuss! He only agrees to help Eliza as a weird social experiment, which might be fine if the show was pushing him as a neo-Sherlock-misanthropist, but it isn’t. He’s coming off a bad break-up, but he has friends at work. He’s friendly and polite to people, and believes that Eliza should be, too. He hates how she dresses, seemingly because she isn’t demure enough or something. Why exactly does a single, independent, 20-something woman need to be demure, again? Why can’t she wear what she wants? The show wants to punish her for being attractive, but still has another character compliment her on her physique, and still lets the camera pan up and down her body. Henry doesn’t receive this treatment, he just looks dapper. Can I just mention again that he’s only supposed to be in his late 30s, and also is in marketing, so he should be just as internet-obsessed as Eliza? I know I’ve already said it, I just keep thinking that if I repeat it, the show will remake itself into something that makes sense.
Did I mention that there’s a sassy yet nurturing African American woman? Had I not mentioned that yet? Maybe I should have made that the headline, ’cause if there’s anything I’m more tired of than gratuitous Millennial-bashing, it’s the sassy-yet-nurturing-African-American lady. Last time I checked, African-American ladies were not on earth to sass/nurture privileged white girls until they became more empathetic. Unless the African-American ladies in your life are all your therapist and/or loving-yet-sassy mom, that’s not their fucking job, and that should not be the only way they show up on television comedies. Fuck. Also, the character’s name, Charmonique, is mocked, and she is later able to have an exchange with Eliza that could have been funny, but was actually an exercise in her being enormously forgiving of Eliza, when Eliza did not particularly deserve it.
Oh, oh wait! I forgot to tell you about the ukulele sing-along! There is one! Eliza’s twee neighbor and her maybe even more twee friends come over to give the show the makeover scene some executive demanded, and the women all sing while one of them strums a ukulele! Can you guess what they sing? Why, it’s “Bad Romance,” a five-year-old Lady Gaga song! And such is the nature of life, and this show, that I was like, shouldn’t they be singing “Fancy”? Or at least “Happy”? Because if you want to skewer an entire generation, at least stay up to date on what the kids are listening to these days. Plus, “Ukulele Fancy” would have been funnier, and I think a bit more apropos to the plot but the point of the scene is to show us what “good” Millennials look like. Sure, they’re a little annoying, but they’re dressed modestly! And they’re all in a book club together, reading… Fear of Flying? Are you shitting me, Selfie??! You want to tell us that a bunch of 20-somethings are getting together to discuss an Erica Jong novel rather than, say, Wild, or The Goldfinch, or Americanah, or Friendship?
So maybe by now you’re asking yourself: why do you care? Why are you so worked up about a half-hour sitcom that probably won’t last a season? I care because it could have been good. I care because this type of show is exactly what we need right now. Think of it: a gender flipped version of this show, that actually dealt with the ways social media can empower us, educate us, and chip away at our sanity. A mainstream, network show that actually tackled the difficulty of being in your early 20s and trying to make a career in a society that monitors and records your every move. A show that looked at the ways we create ourselves, shift our identities to match different platforms, brand ourselves.
About a billion years ago, in 1979, Jimmy Carter said that “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” (He was displeased by this, in case that isn’t obvious.) We’re no longer even defined by what we own, and instead we’re defined by friends, likes, retweets—we’ve all become our own brands. This is not only true of Millennials of course; X-ers like Henry are all over Twitter, our Moms are all over Facebook, our baristas who are getting design degrees are all over ello (or at least, they were when I wrote this a few minutes ago) and it’s clear that, at least for now, this is what we’ve decided to become. And in some cases, the immediacy has been a great boon to humanity—we can foment revolution, organize protests, fund charities, find new families for homeless dogs—but it does all boil down to marketing. Presenting your self as something that others should want to “consume.” And our media and art should at least try to tackle this stuff honestly. Instead they’ve taken a 102-year-old play that tried to hash out class and gender issues in a thoughtful way, and turned it into a didactic screed that punishes its main character for being a normal human who’s doing the best she can with the society she was born into.
Karen Gillan deserved better than this, and so did John Cho, and every Millennial, and social media as a concept.