John Cho is perfect. As an actor he’s versatile, talented, funny- he has screen presence in spades, and the man knows how to deliver a line. He also has that relatively rare quality of being able to play the straight leading man, while also having the comic timing to be reliably off beat and hilarious. I do not understand how it has taken so long for him to be cast as a romantic lead (the Harold and Kumar movies aside, if Harold can be classified as such), because I repeat, the man is perfect. It’s safe to say that I will endure a lot bad television in order to continue to watch John Cho as a leading man every week.
I wrote most of this post two weeks ago when I was supposed to be writing something else, unsurprisingly avoiding other work is the only way I write a blog post ever. At the time I had a line where I begged America to watch the show so it wouldn’t get taken away from me. It’s since been confirmed ABC has not ordered any more episodes, and it’s not clear if they will air any of the remaining past November 11. I still have a lot to say. Onwards.
Happily, the chemistry between Karen Gillan and John Cho in Selfie is great, undoubtedly a solid base for the show to rest on while it finds its footing,
but early ratings may not bode well for Selfie being able to truly grow into itself, which is a shame because there’s a lot of potential there.
Selfie has the potential to be great. However, half of its pilot made me want to stab my hand with a fork. I would like not to be too harsh, as there is a marked improvement in subsequent episodes, and show runner Emily Kapnek’s previous sitcom Suburgatory proved she can traverse the absurd while being sweetly sharp and funny, but Selfie‘s pilot is truly a test of endurance.
Most of my ire at the pilot is because I continue to be confused by Selfie’s perceived audience. They managed to turn off the anti-technology set before they even aired, by calling itself… SELFIE, but then proceeded to paint the audience who bothered to tune in and whom likely take selfies, as stupid, vacuous sluts. Karen Gillan and John Cho hail from two of the nerdiest, probably tech savviest fan bases around: Doctor Who and Star Trek respectively, and Selfie still spent its pilot telling said fans they’re friendless whores who will inevitably vomit on themselves. It hurts me to say it, but the pilot was… not good. If I did not have an enduring love for Cho and Gillan I would never have returned for the second episode. Let us count the ways Selfie’s pilot filled me with reluctant disappointment, which hurts mostly because it obscures an increasingly enjoyable show.
Trailer: Warning, may induce rage
1) Selfie is a confused re-imagining of Pygmalion
Pygmalion fronts as if it is about old white men schooling a young woman into a paragon of unimpeachable femininity. Pygmalion‘s value however, is the tension that arises as the subject in question- Eliza, increasingly conforms to what old white dudes decree is worthwhile in a woman, and what that says about female independence, idealised femininity and class divides. It’s possible I give the play too much credit, and these are fairly complicated intentions to convey in 22 minutes, but Selfie’s pilot doesn’t manage to capture anything good about Pygamlion, but somehow manages to embody everything awful about it, i.e. a dude fixing a lady because he knows better.
Consider this scene from the pilot when Eliza decides to enlist Henry’s help:
Little in this scene makes sense. No one has any clear motivations for their actions, there are no understandable goals that can be achieved by Eliza and Henry’s pact. If Eliza gains validation, and also loses it, by attention on social media, then why is she asking for help from the one person who does not understand how to get that back for her? Eliza makes some vague comments about how she has no real friends, but nothing occurs which suggests Henry is capable of helping her in this respect; the only evidence Eliza has thus far that Henry knows anything about anything, is that he knows how to market nasal spray. I wish I was making this up.
In contrast, Pygmalion‘s Eliza asks for Henry’s help in order to gain career opportunities and financial freedom. In their first encounter Eliza overhears that Henry makes a living by teaching the upwardly mobile how to pass for a higher class by giving them posher accents. She later arrives at his home and asks him to do the same for her so that she may find a more respected position in a flower shop, and Henry agrees for his own amusement and because Pickering challenges him to pass Eliza as a duchess at a party, offering to pay for Eliza’s lessons if Henry succeeds.
Selfie‘s Henry has no discernible reasons to help her, except to prop up his own ego- although again, how is he going to help her, and with what? The scene starts out well enough, but because there is no set goal from either party: does Eliza want to be popular at work, on the internet- what Selfie, what?!, the scene devolves into this abject mush that suggests Henry is going to reformulate Eliza into a better person. Say what now?! Are we supposed to take from this that Selfie is a show about restoring morality? Morality that has been taken from us… by social media?
The terrible thing is there is no need for any of it. Henry is a marketing expert. Eliza’s whole life is apparently lived out on the internet, these are both scenarios which suggest manipulation of other people’s perceptions to gain a set goal. If the scene were about Eliza enlisting Henry’s help for his re-branding expertise only, and not his GAH SO MUCH RAGE, reformulating expertise WHAT, the scene would make both more sense, and actually play out something interesting that manages to say something significant about contemporary society.
Even Pygmalion is very clear that what Henry is doing is fooling the outside world with a new shiny exterior, not changing the essence of Eliza. The fact Eliza changes is about the journey the character undergoes on her own as her worldview broadens, not one that Henry has any hand in. In fact, although Henry proudly claims responsibility of Eliza as his own creation, he is incapable of facilitating such growth because he himself is stagnant; from beginning to end he remains socially abrasive and wilfully ignorant of the needs and desires of others.
Instead, and this is partly because of the power of the Cho, but Henry is consistently more sympathetic than Eliza in this episode, which diminishes his very real pomposity, and makes his more patronising statements hold more validity than they should.
2. Conflation of Social Media with Feminine Excess and Frivolity
This is exacerbated by the fact the show’s protagonist is often too broad. Eliza is a bizarre imagining of someone glued to their phone; a monstrous amalgam of frivolous, vacuous women only concerned with their image and social status. She’s given a dismissive backstory about how being an unattractive teen made her into a superficial blackhole, but beyond this we’re not given much, save one scene where she admits that her phone has always been a distraction from dealing with real life emotions.
I take no issue with the fact Eliza is supposedly ditzy, we all loved Cher from Clueless no? The problem I have is Selfie’s pilot doesn’t define the ditziness as a character trait in its own right, but rather inexplicably conflates being social media obsessed with being vapid, stupid, and superficial, that being popular on the internet is akin to being completely one-dimensional, and further equates this to not knowing how to be a human being in real life. It’s downright bizarre. Think about this for a moment: Eliza’s overuse of Instagram functions as its own code for narcissist as if this should be obvious to everyone in the audience. Nor does Selfie attempt to show us any other alternative with other characters. It’s especially weird because Eliza’s over reliance on technology is the most relatable part of her personality, we all know people who spend too much time on social media, and we can all identify with moments of relying too much on our phones to save us from moments of awkwardness or loneliness; this has essentially become the modern condition. The pilot gets somewhere in this ballpark, but then fumbles as it continues to interchangeably treat use of the internet and actual characterisation as if they’re one and same.
Much of this is problematic not because the characterisation is weak, the point of a tv series is to explore that slowly I suppose, but because the pilot doesn’t know what it wants to say about technology, other than it is bad. Which is frustrating because contemporary society’s relationship with technology is a fucking goldmine of material, and what we get instead is Pilot Eliza: she likes the Instagrams, and doesn’t know how to care about anyone other than herself. It’s to Karen Gillan’s immense credit that she manages to imbue Eliza with warmth, depth and vulnerability, despite the fact she spends the vast majority of the pilot as a cardboard cut-out with a phone.Sigh.
3) Tech Anxiety
Hands down the worst part of Selfie’s first episode however, is its insistence on playing into the narrative that unplugging from technology somehow ensures a more valuable, authentic experience than any one that we could have on our numerous devices. When everyone understands the concept of being unable to leave their phone behind even to pee, society’s addiction to technology is without question a worthy source of anxiety and is absolutely worth satirising. However this anxiety has also conjured an equally ridiculous ideal where disconnecting oneself from technology is synonymous with the ability to have better connections, to be able to “live in the moment”. The problem with asserting such a position as Selfie does so uncritically, is that this gets longingly projected as the most desirable state of being, and not say, a clearly flawed aphorism that does not take into account our real life interactions with the world, even before the event of the smartphone.
The truth about modern technology and social media in general, is our relationship with it is complicated and contradictory. Technology gives us as many real connections as it takes away, and there are many people, not just those tech or social media obsessed who can warmly state that modern technology has allowed them to have even more “authentic” experiences, even better connections. I know plenty of people for example who feel strongly about their online friends and communities, and have also managed to foster valuable friendships and wonderful experiences as a result.
I say all this as someone who is both old, and terrible at all forms of social media. The last time I actively used Facebook was ten years ago during swot vac, and people were still using elaborate poking apps to ‘defenestrate’ each other (this was when everyone else also learnt what ‘defenestrate’ was, right?). No one in their early 20s knows what I’m talking about I’m sure. Despite my Gen Y status, I’m closer to Henry’s curmudgeonly ways (seriously, I’m terrified by Twitter, and I have an Instagram account I’ve had for ages and never posted a photo to) than I am Eliza’s inability to speak in complete sentences, but at no point did I enjoy that Eliza was essentially given her comeuppance for using her phone too much.
I am however someone who lives on the world’s biggest island (it’s Australia! also smallest continent, thank-you Humanities) with a best friend who moved to Japan this year, a sister who lives in Seoul, another sister and younger brother who live in New York, not to mention five adorable nieces between them. There’s a pretty good chance that when I’m looking at my phone I’m doing it to connect to someone I love and care about, and that’s true for everyone else who owns a smartphone, no matter how much time is wasted checking Instagram. So, sure, there’s no way that Eliza has developed any real friends online, because connections not made in person are automatically less important and only about boosting our own narcissistic tendencies and gaining meaningless likes.
4) Pygmalion should never ever be the basis for a romantic plot. EVER.
But, Eliza’s awfulness is all about how she’s going to grow into a better person, and it follows Pygmalion right? Um, yeah, sure, kind of, not really. More importantly, Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, should never be the basis for a contemporary romance plot in 2014, or in fact ever. Ever! Especially if it does not feature an attack on class hypocrisy, and at the same time rein-fucking-forces that women in short skirts are less classy than women who wear long pale peach gowns. I cannot be more emphatic about this.
Despite the fact Henry sounds like a dick with his rhyming couplets here, Eliza promptly reinforces the message when she refers to her own clothing as ‘slutty’ in the following scene (thus needing to borrow the dress she wears to the wedding), and is then roundly complimented by all for the transformation. This casual dismissal of females when they present themselves with anything associated with an excess sexuality is the most obvious marker of class we have when discussing women i.e. sexy women = trashy, and Selfie‘s pilot- possibly despite its own good intentions, I dunno, are they trying to reclaim the word ‘slut’?? horrifyingly works to reify that prejudice. Visually and narratively, we’re being told that Eliza is to be less respected than Henry, and that by listening to him she’ll become a more valued member of society.
I’ve discussed this before on this blog elsewhere, but it bears repeating: successful romantic plots call for a traditional narrative structure that create conflict between equals, in order for them to grow into better people deserving of a happy ending together. In comparison, Pygmalion features a rather clueless Eliza who seems incapable of understanding anything anyone has to say, she then proceeds to become a doll for two men to shape, then a parrot, before transforming into a beautiful, but largely silent figure of refined femininity, albeit briefly as Eliza’s duchess triumph occurs off-stage.
I don’t disagree that there is sexual tension between Henry and Eliza, even in Pygmalion, but I’d argue that it only arises as Eliza becomes Henry’s equal toward the end of the play, when she is capable of sparring with him in his own language. The tension arises specifically because Eliza is suddenly capable of challenging Henry, and in that respect a romantic plot can only begin with a story that starts from the end of Pygmalion, not its beginning.
George Bernard Shaw may have had slightly different reasons, but he was also clear and steadfast that Eliza and Henry should not have a romantic resolution. In fact he became so maddened by renditions of the play that featured a ‘happily ever after’ ending for the couple, that he added an epilogue that begins by berating people that he should have to write one at all due of their insistent stupidity, then states that Eliza married Freddy, opened a flower shop funded by Pickering, and remained a secretary of sorts for the eternal bachelors Henry and Pickering. Shaw emphasised that Henry’s relationship with Eliza was that of a mentor and nothing more.We all hate this love song, yes, thank-you Big Bang.
My argument remains that it is gross to feature a romantic plot where a dude explicitly changes his lady into what he deems to be an ideal woman. There’s a vast difference between being a catalyst for change, and being the one doing the moulding. By explicitly rejecting a romantic conclusion, Shaw could hope to claim Pygmalion as social commentary on class structures and female independence, without it, the play merely maintains the status quo, particularly as Henry achieves no growth.
Which is what happens in Selfie‘s pilot, as it suggests a romantic attachment for our leads too early, straight after Charmonique suggests that Henry is doing a good job at reshaping Eliza, UGH, WHY, and delivers this:
I agree, Cho and Gillan together, absolute win. Cho as a romantic lead, Gillan as a romantic lead? More please. Cho’s character as an insufferable ass who continues to spout nonsense like “I don’t think you’re getting it, but you are in fact missing it” as if he is a legitimate source of reason, continuing to school a lady during a moment of romantic tension, no! Make it stop! Fuck you show, let the girl take a picture. This made me about as mad as when Audrey Hepburn returned to Rex Harrison to hand him his slippers. That is not romantic. The line “I’ve become accustomed to your face” is a concession, not a romantic declaration for god’s sake.
Although the pilot enraged me, Selfie really got so much better. For one thing they mostly abandoned the idea that Henry was reformulating Eliza, keeping it more in name only (although once in a while it’s still iffy), they also quickly discarded that Eliza needs to be seriously changed- she’s adorable!, and thankfully they’ve emphasised that the patronising Henry is just as clueless and in need of help as Eliza, and have started to present their relationship as if they’re helping each other grow equally. The romantic tension between Henry and Eliza is insane and way less creepy now, way to go! Selfie is fun and cute and I swear, Gillan and Cho have the best sexual chemistry going right now:
The tech stuff is also better. I’m going to qualify that with an ‘ish’ because it continues to exist mainly to say that life would be better if people spent less time on their phones, which is both easy and obnoxious, surely there are more interesting things to say- but Selfie now also presents Henry as vaguely out of touch, discovering the world of social media through Eliza, so: better-ish. I still think it is the weakest element of the show, as at times social media behaves more like a visual style- a prop or a costume, rather than a theme or a concept that gets well integrated into the plot. Why then did the show get named “Selfie”- what I’m getting at is that a good show got hamstrung by its muddled high concept, and unfortunately the pilot was almost all concept and no show.
RIP, Selfie, may you be a stepping stone for bigger and better things for everyone involved.
This is so much better than the pilot. Damn you people, why didn’t you watch.
I laughed really hard when David Harewood’s character admits he always imagined his daughter’s love life would follow the plot of Coming to America.
There doesn’t appear to be any reason why Henry needs to chase after Eliza on a horse, but I’ll take it.
It’s difficult not to love Charmonique
Seriously, cancelling a show after only six episodes? This show is freakin’ adorable.
After writing most of this post I continued my avoidance of real work by watching parts of Cho’s back catalogue I wasn’t acquainted with, it was like I could already feel Selfie would be taken away. I even watched the Total Recall remake (BLASPHEMY- Verhoeven forever!), although it got kind of boring after platinum-haired John Cho died… I may have fallen asleep before the end.
More importantly, was I the last person to know that there was a show with both Matthew Perry and John Cho on it? How is it that no one talked about Go On? I didn’t even know it existed. Admittedly the internet is a bubble and I never turn on the tv, but really, no one else thought it was important they were on a show, together?! It was like the internet shrugged. No gifs, no tweets, virtually no articles, no youtube vids, no ships, I looked! After six episodes Selfie has a stronger internet presence than Go On had after twenty two.
It’s possible I watched all 22 episodes while procrastinating. It’s true, there appears to be little evidence I’m a fully functioning adult.Thanks ABC, now none of us can appreciate John Cho’s Keira Knightley cheekbones. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Updates and Off-Cuts
Hayley has recently returned from TIFF and a trip to the States, and I’ve just gotten back from Korea/Japan (see, we sort of have reasons for why we almost never post!), so theoretically there will be more stuff up soon. If there are any Aussies like me who only ever notice how much they swear when they leave the country, take comfort in this Malcolm Tucker Fuck Reel, I did. Ah, sweet, sweet cussing.
K-Pop in Korea is like pop music everywhere, ubiquitous, but for the vast majority, mere background noise. If anything, people should never underestimate how much Koreans love ballads and drama/film soundtracks. This time around I swear on my life every shop in Seoul was playing the soundtrack to that Keira Knightely Mark Ruffalo movie “Begin Again”, which weirdly I saw just before I left for Korea. It was as if every shop-keeper in Seoul made a pact to only play that soundtrack on a loop- I haven’t been able to get ‘Lost Stars’ out of my head for the last three weeks.
Everyone I love knows I was completely obsessed with WIN: WHO IS NEXT, the Mnet reality tv program that presented YG Entertainment’s training program as a Fame-esque school for wannabe stars battling it out for the right to perform with The Company. IT IS THE BEST: two teams put their blood, sweat and tears into their training, when one team is finally given a chance to debut. To win, they must beat their fellow trainees and friends in a live showdown, and after learning how to have fun and be free on stage, the underdog team with their slightly inferior dance technique finally proves their value to the Director- hang on, this is essentially the plot to Centre Stage, no wonder I loved this program so much. So much drama, so many tears. WIN you were eleven episodes of magic, and I will love you forever.
For anyone who cares, Mnet just finished airing the follow-up to WIN, ‘Mix and Match’ which I haven’t had the chance to watch, but I hear it’s now official: there’s a happy ending for all eleven boys of WIN. Winner (nee Team A) debuted in August, and iKon (nee Team B), jeez these names, will debut next year. This makes me so happy guys, especially because my two favourites- Kang Seung Yoon and Bobby were on different teams. Their dreams are going to become a reality *tears*. Y’all can stop crying now.Closed captions for subs
Also, when are they going to release this song?
Closed captions for subs
Ok, am off to enjoy the left-over catering that has just entered the break room, hope everyone else is also getting unexpected bounties of food delivered to their workplaces. Jen out.