Harper Watched: Selfie

Welcome to another installment of Harper Watched-- where I view and then review a work of TV, film, or theater. Today I'm talking about ABC's new comedy, Selfie, starring John Cho and Karen Gillan.

Selfie is a modern take on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, or as you might be more familiar, My Fair Lady, which is the other title the story is known by. I am extremely excited to see this interpretation of a plot-- updates and reimaginings of classics are one of my favorite things. If you're not familiar with the story, I'll give you a basic overview, but there is an Audrey Hepburn movie-musical version of it that I highly recommend. It's actually considered a "perfect musical" by most.

Here's a rundown of the basic set-up of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle is a Flower Girl (she sell flowers on the street) of low class and a terrible cockney accent. She's overheard one day by Professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist and speech therapist, and he's struck by how spectacularly terrible her elocution is. Higgs is of the opinion that the reason why so many members of the lower class can't climb the ladder of success is because they have terrible speech-- which makes it impossible to get better jobs or gain respect in society. Eliza considers this and realizes that she wants to do better for herself-- so she finds Professor Higgins and says she wants to learn to speak "proper English" like a real lady. Higgins was just telling his colleague, Pickering, about how horrible she sounded, and at first, he states he can't give her lessons, because her speech is far too terrible, and besides-- she can't afford lessons. Pickering, being a rich British guy with a good sense of humor and way too much money on his hands decides to pay for her lessons because he wants to see Higgins try to improve her speech enough to pass her off as nobility. Nonsense and tom-foolery ensue, and the work serves as a love story while also taking jabs at the social hierarchy and exploring women's independence and place in the world.

In this modern take, poor speech is replaced with social media addiction, as Eliza Dooley, once an ugly duckling no one wanted, has emerged from high school and forged a path for herself and a narcissistic, instafamous swan. One day, she takes a tumble off her heavily facebook-documented pedestal and begins to realize that her life as an instagram-famous hottie isn't as fulfilling as she thought. "When Siri is the only one who's there for you, it kind of makes you realize that being friended isn't the same as having friends." Still struggling to find her bearings after her fall, she returns to work at the children's pharmaceutical company she is a sales rep for and at a meeting learns about marketing guru Henry Higgs, who saved the company's reputation after they put out a nasal spray that causes Satanic nightmares-- and suddenly she realizes that what she needs is a rebrand. She turns to Henry, a hypercritical kill-joy who is disgusted with today's shallow, self-obsessed culture. He takes on the challenge to make her a better person who can lead a fulfilling life-- the kind that's not measured in likes or faves.

The plot of this is great. I'm a huge fan of this show, not only because it's so relevant, but because it's sympathetic to both Henry and Eliza. Henry's a crotchety loner who looks down on those obsessed with their smartphones. Eliza is shallow and incapable of real human interaction. The story could easily hate on them for their faults. Henry is one of those annoying "Millennial articles" and Eliza is that Millennial. But even within the Pilot, the writers take time to make sure the audience understands that Eliza has sort of lost her way, and is so narcissistic and social media obsessed because it makes her feel valued, and helps her avoid dealing with complicated emotions that she doesn't have the tools to handle, and that Henry is definitely more socially acceptable or normal in comparison to Eliza, but that hasn't helped him maintain relationships because he's too critical and hyperanalytical to live in the moment. Plus, the show is funny, and I think the music choice is great-- a little too modern or of the moment for some, but I think that's the point, and the music definitely carries through the emotions well.

You may know Karen Gillan from her time on Doctor Who as Amy Pond, or more recently, as Gamorra's blue sister Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, but let me tell you, this role is a huge departure from either. It's kind of off-putting, especially towards the beginning when she's speaking like Buzzfeed times a thousand, but it definitely gets better throughout the episode-- besides, the point is supposed to be that she starts off as spectacularly annoying and vapid.

John Cho is a great actor, and getting cast as the male lead is a really huge deal. Think about the last time you saw an Asian male lead, who wasn't a friendly side-kick, or a kung fu expert, or a mystic, or a sexless punchline? When was the last time you saw an Asian male play a complicated character on network television, and not be forced to play second fiddle to a main white-guy protagonist? It's been ages (actually it's quite literally been forever). The show is not oblivious to race either, and actually had a funny moment, even within just the first episode, that managed to satirize racial issues in the workplace. It was really funny, while also pointing out how messed up people can be about cultural differences and race. I am so excited for this next step in TV. Kerry Washington is leading Scandal, which I don't watch, but has opened the door for complicated, bad-ass black female heroines who aren't side stories. Last year we saw Sleepy Hollow follow suit, casting Nicole Beharie to partner up with the legendary Ichabod Crane (I wrote a review about this show earlier, but to be frank I've grown less impressed with the show since, mostly due to awkward pacing and a confusing overarching plot) and now this season we're going to see Viola Davis kicking ass and taking names as a terrifying, genius law professor in How to Get Away With Murder. I doubt that networks will rush to cast more Asian males for leading roles as quickly as they were able to do for Black women-- Asians haven't come as far nor built as deep a history in Western film as Black women-- but I know this is a huge step. Compared to ten years ago, I see way more Asian kids on children's shows, and I'm hoping as this new crop of young Asian actors comes into adulthood, more of them pursue it and follow in John Cho's foot steps. The better representation we see in the media, the better we will be recognized as complicated, diverse people, rather than flimsy stereotypes.

Overall though, I have to say I'm really excited for this show. I like how it's exploring the idea of "the self" both in terms of how we see ourselves and how others see us. It's contemplating narcissism in the modern context-- are we really self-obsessed, or is it just that we're clinging to the things that seem most true and certain to us in a complicated and scary world? It's funny, it's smart in a pop-culture sort of way, and it's sweet in it's own, sometimes awkward, spontaneously rhyming sort of way (which as far as I can tell is a smart little nod at the show's roots in the musical My Fair Lady).

Harper's Rating: 4.8/5
Actually takes a look at what is a huge part of modern life
John Cho as a leading man is awesome on a lot of levels
Karen Gillan is beautiful and can be both astoundingly, disgustingly shallow, and very sympathetic.
The costuming on this show makes me SO HAPPY
Marketing guy to the rescue!
The music in this show is well done
Good chemistry
Great, clever reimagining of an already awesome story
It's early, so things could go wrong-- I hope not though
The Bad Romance bit was certainly realistic, but a little awkward to watch
There are a couple continuity things that bug me like Henry's door not getting closed
Eliza's drivel early on is kind of hard to suffer through, but that's the point

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