I tend to be suspicious and unimpressed when the major networks try to act “hip” (as their senior execs still call it) by co-opting current zeitgeists, imitating the Kids These Days, exploiting the catchphrases du jour minutes after they’ve gone out of style, and passing it off as cutting-edge material for Nielsen viewers in the Midwest and the South. I was prepared to give Selfie a reflexive thumbs-down in response to its name alone, when the name was all I knew about it. When I heard it was a loose adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, known better to many as the source material for My Fair Lady, I wavered a little in my stance. My Fair Lady is one of my favorite Best Picture Oscar winners, so much so that I once paid extra to watch a restored version several years ago at a local IMAX theater. The May/December hookup at the very end between Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison never quite rang true for me, but the film crossed two themes that fascinate me at times: class warfare and manners.
A sliver of that last part survived the transition intact. Cockney flower vendor Eliza Doolittle is now Karen Gillan’s Eliza Dooley (syllables saved: 1), a.k.a. “@The_Doolio”, a paid social-media butterfly whose job is to stay popular and perky and jacked in to every imaginable internet outlet. Whereas the original Eliza’s flaws were mere disdain for courtesy and a roughshod accent and a crappy job, Eliza 2.0 treats people in person like an unfeeling, unconditional captive audience, and she talks like a tween cheerleader reading her own tweets aloud. In the space of twenty minutes she runs through the complete writers’-room checklist of Things We’re Pretty Sure Today’s Young People Say Out Loud: “insta-famous”, “hashtag-blessed”, “GIF” (pronounced “jiff”), “LOL” (pronounced “ell-oh-ell”), “Louboutins”, “Cardio Barre” (I had to look that one up), “SoulCycle” (ditto), “feels”, “epic fail”, “hella”, “totes”, “coolio”, and “dunzo”. And those last three were crammed into a single line.
After she suffers a major public embarrassment that tarnishes her internet-celeb status, Eliza wonders if maybe she needs to change a thing or two. Enter the upper-crust instructor formerly known as Henry Higgins: John Cho is haughty marketing whiz Henry Higginbotham (adding two syllables, apropos of stuffiness) who thinks he can rebrand her with a touch of classiness, maturity, sophistication, and maybe even respect for other living beings. Henry thinks he’s the only man for the job because his stubbornly off-the-grid lifestyle and resistance to smartphone addiction make him the greatest of all times. He may be the brightest guy in the room, but at least he’s polite to everyone about it. Hashtag-humblebrag.
Anyone can chart the course of the series from there, whether it runs seven seasons or three episodes. Can this wacky odd couple get along without driving each other and everyone around them crazy? Can Eliza be cured of her short-attention demeanor and the 21st-century chatspeak that the show treats as an affliction? Will Henry ever loosen up by at least joining Facebook? How soon should we expect their first kiss? Can the writers keep updating their slang glossary quickly enough? The possible outcomes are positively finite.According to my notes, I laughed twice and smiled once while I watched the pilot. Credit for two of those three reactions goes to Da’Vine Joy Randolph as receptionist Charmonique, who has to put up with this wacky couple and their eventual hijinks and life lessons. (My favorite line in the episode, among thin competition, when describing her young son’s CPAP mask: “He looks like Bane, but he sleeps like a baby.”) If the show were structured closer to my selfish whims, Charmonique would be our protagonist through whom we viewers live vicariously while waiting for everyone else to catch up with her.
But no, the TV market dictates the famous young people who have top billing should also be the main characters. Usually they’re fine at what they do, but I’m used to seeing them elsewhere with much better material, and I’m even including the Harold and Kumar trailers. Maybe the problem is I’m old. Maybe it’s because any and all oral uses of “hashtag” are like fingernails scraping across sheet metal. Maybe because I don’t get a show that’s ostensibly skewing here-and-now goes out of its way to embrace the five-minutes-ago chic of Lady Gaga and M.I.A.’s seven-year-old “Paper Planes”, thus stomping my earlier, half-jokey use of “cutting-edge” further down into the Dumpster. Maybe it was the scene where Eliza uses “coxcomb” correctly in a sentence purely as a My Fair Lady callback even though Words with Friends never would have taught her its definition. Or maybe it was the scene with the vomit. Or Siri’s product-placement cameo.
I’ve followed John Cho through Go On and FlashForward, and would rather follow him into something worth his time. I’m not exactly sure what’s in it for Gillan, either — I can’t see Selfie becoming the dream project that helps her break free of the geek shackles of Doctor Who in quite the same way that How I Met Your Mother relieved Alyson Hannigan from the burden of being Buffy‘s Willow. And someday it might be nice to see a TV show that can keep apace of internet culture without sounding like the gasps and wheezes of sixtysomething corporate overlords taking notes from their granddaughters.
If I’m in the minority about all of this and the show becomes an overnight sensation embraced by all the largest Google+ circles, that’s fine, and that’s on them. I won’t be sticking around long enough to sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Its Face”.
(MCC 2014 Pilot Binge stat: Number of minutes passed before I wanted the show to go away: 2. For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!)