The much-discussed sitcom Selfie premiered last night on ABC, to a strangely high-emotion/low-content response. Gen X reviewers are befuddled, Gen Y is wary; tech and PR people are annoyed (although not all of them!) and misogynists feel validated. I would argue this means the show is doing exactly what it's set out to do: Explore some of our media-obsessed culture's most prominent conflicts, with compassion for both sides.
Created by Emily "Suburgatory" Kapnek and based very loosely on Shaw's Pygmalion, the show has given us such a forward-thinking collection of ideas and characters that it could remain unreadable for the time being. For starters, its closest and most accurate comparison would be to the 2005 British comedy Nathan Barley from Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris, still prescient nearly ten years later, more relevant every day.
But then too, a female-created and -run show always inherits a fair amount of our '90s-received wisdom regarding this mysterious "they" who are always trying to keep us down, whether it's through "their" misogyny or "their" politics or "their" Male Gaze or whatever the case may be. A story told by a woman about a woman can still feel like a man attacking women, when you bring that BS to the table; a show by a woman about a woman must tread lightly.
But it's not even that—nobody who is incapable of thinking about this stuff is going to sit their ass down on a couch to watch something called Selfie in the first place—so much as the bizarre world Kapnek has created, the frankly futurist ideas she brings to the table.
While Suburgatory slid in its last season, for most of its run it had the scent of something radically new: Strange-ass Dalia Royce, for starters, a soulless mall bitch from go, repulsive in every way, who became (along with her mother, Cheryl Hines's Dallas) the heart of the show. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Karen Gillan's Eliza Dooley was just a softened Dalia, given as she is to the same soulless bullshit and grotesque presentation. Really, the show's doing something more profound: Where Suburgatory split those parts of us—the part that yearns for authenticity and the part that just wants to be an object of desire—into its two teen rivals, Selfie combines them:
Eliza Dooley is a person for whom personhood became too painful, so she stopped.
I mean, think about that real hard (it's true of Cho's Henry as well). While the title is still annoying as hell, and the main character's grating insistence on using dubious-at-best, hashtaggy lingo reflects poorly on the world's universe, it is also true that—if you first accept this as being a real show about real shit—these things make her look NUTS. Or more specifically, weird and sad. And what the show is trying to say, while tangoing around the million misogyny landmines that surround this idea, is that she is weird and sad. And that sucks. And that there's a way out.
The master stroke of the show is making this the subject of the conversation not by having useful conversations about it—John Cho's Henry, lecturing us on everything from Twitter to white-noise apps, is every fuckin' bit as irritating—but by making the entire show about it. Because one thing nobody has nailed down in this Gen X/Millennial (pre-internet/post-internet, really) fight is the actual battleground: That when a technology or medium is "new," there must be inherent ethical flaws in the people using it (without first apologizing or offering an alibi; neither early adopter nor grampa dinosaur; neither hipster nor hipster). That diagnosing someone else (as a racist, a misogynist, a narcissist) exempts you from rigorous self-examination, too.
The advent of the cell phone camera has forced everyone to feel like they need a take, and the take has become this: When we compulsively photograph things we are already distancing ourselves from real life, but when we photograph ourselves, we are turning that power away from other people: Photography is pornography, but selfies are masturbating to porn of yourself.
What kills me about this line of reasoning is that you are never going to hit a time in history when people were not self-centered. The only difference between a dinner-table fight about cell-phone use in 2014 and a dinner-table conversation 100 years ago is that now you can tell that you are boring me: There is a physical object in play. It is a tool for me to ignore you, not a force pulling my attention away, and what it means is: Be more interesting. Be more interesting than my phone, because you're the only one having a problem here. By having both sides of this bizarrely insurmountable, mutually selfish conversation represented, the show seems to have confused everybody by betraying them.
Because of Henry's (creepy, rhyming) growing fascination with the monster that is Eliza, we get to have her answer his questions: As olds we would like these answers. Because of Eliza's high verbal skills, we get to hear her defense (or at least her rationalizations): As users of technology, it's helpful to hear new explications for things we didn't even notice ourselves doing. And as viewers, we can get on board or not, but the birds-eye view of the show wildly transforms almost every scene:
For example, as a consumer and a personal brand, top sales agent Eliza chooses her coworker, marketing guru Henry, to rehabilitate her image. He thinks she's drawing a line between her "true self" and her "brand messaging," while she understands there's no difference between those things: She is literally talking about her soul, no translations necessary. And so already you're having two wildly different, opposing conversations, depending on where you fall. Meanwhile, the show is pointing out that "brand messaging" is older than Dale Carnegie, if you remove the imaginary ethical taint from those words and look at them for what they are: Timeless ideas expressed in a relevant new context. Treating oneself as a product to be marketed is only a bad thing if that's the extent of what you are. Which nobody ever was.
Ultimately either this is a fun show for you or not, but what I came away with was surprise, not about the quality (I wasn't worried about that) but about the focus. It's not a feminist or trope-bending response to My Fair Lady, it's not even really about "selfie culture," whatever the hell that means: It's about two weird and sad people who are empty because, for very different reasons, that was the only option. And what they are exploring together is the ground between the brand and the market, or what you and I might instead call ourselves and other people. Which is pretty fertile territory, given that literally everything happens in it.