Starring Karen Gillan as Eliza Dooley and John Cho as Henry Higgs, Selfie attempts to take on Generation Y and the way likes, shares, and retweets are re-shaping our social/media lives. John has a bow tie, Karen has an American accent, and everything in between means to achieve the comical via the absurd/nonsensically quirky scenic route.
I’m not going to lie, I did laugh at some bits, I love both John Cho and Karen Gillan — David Harewood is an added bonus — and of course I’m interested in any TV show dealing with how humans interact with social media and other networks.
That said, there are a few things I was uncomfortable with right off the bat:
The dichotomy between real life vs social media life, between real friends vs online community, and between real feelings vs feels is being painted as reeeaally black and white in this pilot. Eliza isn’t automatically and inherently vapid because she’s fallen prey to online claqueurs after being pretty down on the popularity scale in school solely because of her looks. She sought what many adolescents seek: approval from her peers, and she took it where she got it. Yes, none of her online “friends” gave two shits about how she was doing after that humiliation fest on the plane, but that’s not the reality for many — if not the majority — of the main target group of this show when it comes to social media. Yes, she may be addicted to the instant gratification, but the writers seem to equate that with her having none of her original personality being left, instead of just buried under that self-centered persona and an inability/reluctancy to fully connect with people other than via scripts and APIs. (That’s not to say that some of what is going on online isn’t completely ridiculous. But I seem to have some crazy live-and-let-retweet zen going on unless it’s actually harming people.)
Which brings me to the second thing: by basically equating herself with nasal spray, narrative Eliza gives up a lot of her agency. What Henry is going to be doing is to mold her to an image that he thinks is most likely to go down well with her audience — he does propose to help her “become a better person,” but that’s not really what we’re talking about in terms of a nasal spray that caused Satanic hallucinations. Rather than help her reconnect with her old and own self, he’s basically going to give her a giant personality make-over. Since this is only a pilot, I’m hoping that those nuances will become clearer in the future, but I’m not looking forward to the prospect of Eliza changing and changing, only for Henry to finally fall in love with her, because I’m pretty sure that that’s where we’re going to be heading here. In order for that not to turn out completely tacky and, frankly, creepy, Henry needs to change as well. His indulgence to Eliza to enjoy standing in the rain may be the first sign of that, that Eliza has a genuine personality of her own that she just needs help and support reconnecting with, and that Henry can learn a few things from her quirky mess of a life as well.
Selfies, narcissism, and female public image
Still, the whole selfie/narcissist problematic is painted in very broad strokes here, and it gets especially tricky when we add the perspective of the female experience of this — being accused of only seeking attention, of being arrogant bitches, of flaunting ourselves. Thinking yourself beautiful in a world that demands women be flawless and pretty and silent is the worst possible crime, and to publicise it — oh dear, don’t you dare. Eliza is ridiculed for panic-vomiting and going back to her seat dressed in an airplane blanket, but Miller from marketing is in no discernible way penalised or frowned upon for cheating on his wife and lying to Eliza. Eliza is, apparently, also in need of a rebranding campaign that tailors her formerly provocative dress style to something more conventionally acceptable.
Caveat: the one thing I totally agree with Henry on is Eliza’s ignorance of Charmonique. One, because Charmonique seems like a genuinely great person, and two, because receptionists (and other service workers) have to put up with a lot of crap from people day in, day out, and you can tell a lot about other people by how they treat those who make their lives easier every day yet are practically invisible. On the other hand, I’m hoping Charmonique won’t just be the ‘sassy woman of colour’ trope kind of character and won’t just be an accessory to Eliza’s learning curve.
Comedy is a tough vehicle
One thing that the writers have completely missed: internet language was never meant to be spoken out loud. Especially not on national television. I know people do it, but please, no, stop. There are entire blogs and, by now, scientific studies dedicated to online linguistics, and this is not the way this was meant to go.
Of course, this is a comedy, so hyperbole and overdrawing characters is what you’d expect of his type of television, but there’s no rule in the playbook that comedy can’t have grey areas and nuances and subtleties. I didn’t find Eliza’s singing book club neighbours quirky, just annoying, but they might do the trick for other viewers; and of course you don’t stare at your phone the entire time you’re supposed to be having tea with someone or at a wedding, but that’s comedy for you. I haven’t dealt much with sitcoms in recent years, I’m more of a drama person, so I may be a little rusty in reminding myself of these things. I’m also curious as to whether there will ever be a more balanced commentary on interacting with social media and the way that, yes, online friends can actually be good for you and, hey, if posting a selfie and getting some kind comments from perfect strangers is a confidence boost for you, that’s ok, too. I might give Selfie another episode or two, just to get a sense of where this is heading and whether I want to be along for the ride, at all.
Next on Selfie: Un-Tag My Heart.