Selfie is one of the funniest, richest, most troubling comedy pilots of the season. It’s a Pygmalion story about a hip, fashionable, vapid sales rep named Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) who finds herself in need of re-branding. Enter her company’s uptight whiz kid Henry (John Cho). The problems Henry was enlisted to fix? Well, at first, Eliza tallies her social selfishness, her lack of real friends, and her libertine sensuality. Which extends, he says, to her obsession with social media and her “look at me” ensembles. Later we find out her credit cards are maxed out and her place is a collection of TLC warning signs. That’s a lot to lay at the feet of the “Like” button.
The title has the Girls problem. It’s so general as to suggest a critique of a whole class rather than just the characters on-screen, as if the online culture of sharing pictures of oneself can only lead to Mean Girls. But Selfie isn’t about an entire culture; at most, it’s only about the popularity contest within that culture. A flashback reveals Eliza’s origin story, a woman formed in the cauldron of junior high, chasing the popularity she never had back then. The premise still slightly beggars belief. Eliza’s so confident, put together, and successful in her career that it’s hard to buy her having such poor social fluency. She’s a narcissist, but a clueless one.
More worrisome is the lopsided power dynamic. Eliza has volunteered to do whatever Henry says in order to become a better person. Okay, there are such things as life coaches, but it’d be easier to take if lonely, snobby Henry needed Eliza as much as she needs him. What comes through in the pilot is more condescending than that. And that attitude seeps into other scenes as well, such as when Eliza’s neighbor Bryn (Allyn Rachel) volunteers to help Eliza dress down for a work wedding. “You’re lucky make-unders are my everything.” It’s a funny line out of context, and the delivery is beautiful, but who takes pride in helping people look less than their best? It’s a line meant to raise a character up that subtly slaps her down.
And as for Henry and Eliza, once it’s clear this is a budding romance, it suddenly feels like The Shield when Dutch uses his authority as a cop to get women. There’s also the issue that both Eliza and Henry are so deep in their own heads that they don’t yet show a lot of chemistry. Selfie can iron all this out, but it has a rocky road ahead.
The saving grace of Selfie is that it comes from Emily Kapnek, who created the late, great Suburgatory. Suburgatory could be similarly broad, but its unique tone helped it become one of the best network comedies of the last couple years. The secret is that every little thing was stylized—the dialogue, the colors, the sets—so it was that rare network comedy that felt all of a piece.
No wonder Selfie comes so fully formed. Eliza would be proud of Selfie’s control of color, patterns, and lighting, not just in the costumes but in the compositions. And it’s not precious. The show’s sensibility blends Eliza’s Pinterest-page style with Henry’s more old-fashioned classicism: Selfie sets on-screen graphics and social media montages against a backdrop of moody color work and vintage props. Along with all the witty wordplay comes dirty jokes and outsized gags. And there are more songs in the 22-minute pilot than in the average hour of Glee.
Best of all, as on Suburgatory, the writing is a medley of styles suiting each character’s personality. Eliza’s catchy Internet slang, like “panic pudding” or “GIF my way out of this,” recalls Tamara on Awkward. Meanwhile, Henry is more musical, as in his instructions on Eliza’s wedding outfit: “Makeup should be light, your dress less tight. Hair should be tame, your face softly framed.” With that kind of aesthetic care (and a thing for rain, though not on the plain), Selfie really feels like a network comedy adaptation of My Fair Lady.
As for the self-improvement angle, the final season of Suburgatory had a stealth Selfie: In an episode called “I’m Just Not That Into Me,” a matchmaker gives chichi socialite Dallas a make-under and sends her on a date with herself to cure her of her people-pleasing, discovering what she really wants in life in the process. Dallas has to decide whether she’d rather be Gollum and honest or Barbie and fake. What she realizes is she doesn’t dress beautiful to please men. She does it for herself. She does have an inner life.
That’s the hope for Selfie. Already there’s a wistfulness underneath the light surface. Half the scenes in the pilot are rooted in sadness, and the other half are rooted in Eliza aggressively covering up for her sadness. Eliza may seem vapid, and Selfie may seem broad, but there’s more to this one than meets the eye.