Monday, September 29, 2014

Pilot Review: Selfie

Selfie (Tuesdays at 8:00 on ABC; Premieres September 30)

What if Eliza Doolittle were a character in an Amy Heckerling film in 2014? That seems to be the question Selfie creator Emily Kapnek asked herself when developing the new ABC comedy based on George Bernard Shaw's classic 1912 play Pygmalion (and subsequent musical adaptation My Fair Lady). There's a surprising bite to the comedy here, much as there was over a century ago when Shaw debuted his play, despite some shortcomings. But the overall concept of mixing the feeling of Clueless with My Fair Lady comes across better than one would think, thanks to some sharp social commentary.

Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy) is Eliza Dooley our modern-day Eliza Doolittle by way of Cher Horowitz. She's a pharmaceutical sales rep with more Instagram followers than brain cells. She meets Henry Higgs (John Cho, most recently of Sleepy Hollow), a marketing guru, and he trains her in how to interact with people face-to-face rather than via social media and cell phones. There's considerable chemistry between Gillan and Cho, and the former is entertaining in that emptyheaded, vapid way that made Alicia Silverstone an overnight star in the 90s. Cho is dependable, as always. The concept, though thin, is cute and clever, and you won't find a more timely sitcom on broadcast television this fall.

From the first scene, I was totally on board with Henry: "Social media is this giant fingernail scratching this woman's itch for constant attention. 'Oh, look at me, something good happened, hashtag blessed. Oh, look at me, something bad happened, hashtag still blessed. Oh, I'm at the gym, hashtag gym flow. I'm at work, hashtag work flow. Oh, I'm standing near a baby, hashtag baby flow hashtag circle of life hashtag blessed.'" Yup, pretty much exactly how I feel about my generation and especially those a few years younger than me (the 13-21 crowd). If Selfie is going to be a humorous examination of the current wave of youthful narcissism and what being "friends" means in the Facebook age, then I'll gladly be watching. There is some solid social satire going on here, mostly courtesy of Henry's bleak outlook on humanity's techno-dependency, like the visual joke of an elevator full of people all with their phones pointed toward the ceiling in search of wi-fi. But there are also some really terrible moments that undermine Selfie's wittier moments, such as Eliza spilling a bag of her own vomit down the front of her designer dress, and a scene where she speaks in unidentifiable abbreviations and internet slang; these scenes are clearly here because ABC is trying to program this toward families: parents will get a kick out of the smarter moments, teens will connect with Eliza's social media obsession and jargon, and kids will just laugh at the dumb girl covered in puke.

Were Selfie to aim for one primary audience, it might come across as a more confident show. Trying to please three generations of viewers doesn't really work. This identity crisis, however, is unsurprising considering it's created by Emily Kapnek, who is a three-time Emmy nominee for the kids cartoon series As Told By Ginger and has since written for Parks & Recreation, Suburgatory, and HBO's Hung. Kapnek has a varied background in several different types of comedies, all of which are represented in Selfie: you have the broad physical comedy of a kids' cartoon, the youthful voice of ABC's recently departed teenage single-cam comedy Suburgatory, and the snappy dialogue and conceptual humor of a more adult show. It all leaves me feeling torn about Selfie. I really like its central conceit of Henry trying to turn Eliza into a "real" person, from someone who was weaned on nothing but wireless connections and internet friendships, to someone with real relationships and real-world savvy. But it has a lot of weaknesses to iron out. Charmonique (newcomer Da'vine Joy Randolph, a recent Tony nominee) for example, is the worst kind of stock character: a black stereotype with nothing to do but give sass and chicken neck. It's a thankless role with no real purpose, and Charmonique isn't even all that funny. Tim Peper's Ethan is similarly useless and forgettable in the pilot Selfie also needs to calm down on trying to be so pop culture relevant. There are so many unnecessary moments that serve little purpose, other than to presumably get tweets and attention (ironic considering the show is about taming a woman's need for social media attention): the Lady Gaga sing-along, the Bane impression, the jokes about Frozen... they feel desperate, like Selfie is grasping for relevance in any way it can find it. It doesn't need these superfluous moments. It has a relatively smart concept, a clever twist on a classic story, and two leads with decent chemistry. The building blocks for a good comedy are there, and being relevant because your show is actually funny is much more appealing than grasping at pop culture straws.

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