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Welcome to our first Emily in Paris recap: Season 1, Episode 1. Oh là là.
I remember how stressed I was when the show first debuted, in 2020. It was like watching your infinitely more glamorous and better dressed neighbor go on the same vacation as you — only their clothes were better, their hotel was nicer, the beaches that they went to had better sand and prettier views. It was your experience, only better, in every possible way. Mon dieu, I say. Mon dieu.
Moving to Paris feels like a unique experience, but it is not. In fact, the silver lining is that it is infinitely variable, and depending on your experience, talent, ambition, and worldview, it is infinitely possible to make new, vital, and canonical work about it, like Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and a million more. (Two of my favorites include dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterners: Iowa painter Grant Wood, most famous for “American Gothic,” who painted in France on four separate trips to Europe between 1920 and 1928, and Nebraska-born Alexander Payne, whose contribution to the Paris je t’aime anthology film is a wonderful short starring Margo Martindale, and I think one of the best-ever meditations on Paris syndrome.) All of these stories can live peaceably alongside each other — but here was Emily, and Netflix, with the definitive story of an American woman coming to Paris, in search of love, connection, and a promotion to senior brand manager as soon as she returns to Chicago. I watched it with trepidation, and I didn’t enjoy it much.
Good lord but a lot has changed since 2020, and I decided to rewatch the show, and write about it here. I’m less uptight about my experience in Paris, now that I’m further dividing my time between there, New Jersey (where I’m from), and Iowa (where I’ve been in grad school the past two years). So far, I’m liking it much more.
We begin with Chicago, where we know Emily is young and ambitious because she runs increasingly quickly beneath the Chicago skyline, wears Kenzo to the office, and has a glamorous boss with a masters degree in French who is capable of procreating in her early 50s. World, meet Emily. Emily, le monde.
Tragically, Emily is also provincial, which we understand because her Cubs-loving boyfriend orders her a beer. (“White wine,” Emily says, correcting him. “Anything French.”) Can we stop for a moment to say how Chicago, an amazing and world-class city that has functioned as the birthplace of multiple artforms, including house music, Chicago blues, and many more, should not be used as a synonym for an unsophisticated, un-Paris American city? As Jessica M. Goldstein wrote in Vulture: “I guess they figured she wouldn’t be quite so starry-eyed about Paris if she were from New York or L.A.?” Chicago is great, and Chicagoans fucking love their city, so I’m calling BS on this. BS! (I literally cannot imagine just showing up in Paris and being handed the keys to an apartment. Finding my current place was the hardest thing I’ve done there.)
Anyway, we know Emily and her American boyfriend are going to break up because he loves the Cubs, and beer, and sports bars. She shows up in Paris for the requisite tour de taxi, passing sights including the Arc de Triomphe and the Palais Garnier — exiting at the Place de l’Estrapade/rue des Fossés St Jacques, in the fifth. This is an extremely lovely part of Paris and well done on Emily for inheriting her boss’s chambre de bonne here. By the way, her apartment looks much bigger than a chambre de bonne, and assuming she got the same apartment Madeline was supposed to have, I am again calling BS: According to Glassdoor (IDK why I am investigating this to this degree but OK), a senior marketing manager (like Madeline) in Chicago (like Madeline) could expect an annual salary of up to $190,000 a year, and according to the rent calculator on apartmentlist.com, 30% of that salary for rent would be about €4500. €4500 a month in Paris can get you a f-ing lot of apartment in Paris, and much more than a chambre de bonne, which are typically very, very small — like under 10 mètres carrés small. (Closet-small. Well, very big closet.) Emily’s rental agent immediately asks her on a date. Fair.
Also, this is Emily’s face when she’s told that she’s only on the fourth floor, not the fifth, which I am again calling BS on because the whole “the first floor is the ground floor, the second floor is the first floor, etc” is such common newcomer-to-Paris knowledge that I absolutely do not believe Emily doesn’t know this. It’s on the cover of every Lonely Planet guide ever written about any region of France/Europe. But of course, if she doesn’t make this mistake, she won’t accidentally knock on the door of her downstairs neighbor a few nights later:
Most of Emily’s drama, however, occurs not within her apartment building (we’ll get back to that in a second) but at her office, which, for the record, opens at 10:30 a.m., not 8:30. (Another mistake I do not believe our hyper-prepared Emily would have made. She is both simultaneously smarter and dumber than the we want or need her to be.) The show wants to have it both ways: to poke fun at her ignorance, and to revel in her command of her chosen field. But people tend to be “do one thing the way you do all things,” you know? It’s perfectly excusable that Emily, who did not anticipate moving to France for her job, would show up not speaking French. It is less understandable that this hyper-American American wouldn’t quickly get up to speed on some of the basics of French life.
That said, I will co-sign Emily’s hot neighbors. There are like ten apartments in my building, and everyone, at a huge variety of age ranges, could qualify as hugely attractive. But then, that is France! Everyone can be hot, in their own weird way. It’s one of the best things about the place.
Back to the office: We meet Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), Julien (Samuel Arnold), Luc (Bruno Gouery), and the owner of the firm, Paul Brussard (Arnaud Viard). Emily’s employment, we discover, was the condition of the sale of the agency to the American mothership, and now she will have the opportunity to teach all these Frenchies how to use Instagram. It makes sense!
Obviously Sylvie becomes a big part of Emily’s story, and I did very much like Emily’s introduction to Paul, which included his breakdown of Chicago’s deep-dish pizza (“like a quiche made of cement”), the American pharmaceutical industry (“So you create the disease, then you treat the disease, then you market the treatment” — yes!) and a very prescient mention from Emily of a diabetes drug that causes weight loss and grew Merck’s profits by 63%. (V. specific.) “Perhaps you have something to learn from us,” Paul concludes, “but I’m not sure if we have much to learn from you.” I bet there might be some cross-cultural, two-direction learning on the horizon!
Anyway, Emily’s coworkers are mean, and no one wants to get lunch with her. Their reaction to this smiling, cheerful, outdoor-voice-at-indoor-meeting pixie is summed up in Julien’s expression, one I know well:
It is the look of a Parisian disappointed in, and confounded by, American cheerfulness.
Emily attempts to convene a meeting of the firm, only to see the woman in charge of its social media flee (in terror, disapproval) when Emily leads it in English: “I did Rosetta Stone on the plane, but it hasn’t kicked in yet.” (That is very funny.) It’s all very Mean Girls, or Méchantes Ados, as it was known in Québec. The only holdout in the be-mean-to-Emily brigade is Luc, with his funny hair, who scooters by her as she sits, despondently, outside a café on the ile Saint-Louis, joining her briefly for a vape and a cultural briefing. “Your ideas,” he says. “They are more new. Maybe they are better. [But] I think the Americans have the wrong balance: You live to work, we work to live.”
“I enjoy work! And accomplishment. It makes me happy,” Emily says.
“Work makes you happy?” Luc says. “Maybe you don’t know what it is to be happy.”
Well, fair enough. Room for growth on all sides.
Speaking of accomplishment, Emily ends the episode by shorting out the electricity in her apartment building by plugging her vibrator into a wall outlet fitted with an adapter. I did the same thing, though with a decidedly less exciting immersion blender. C’est la vie, if you will.
Emily in Paris recap, Season 1, Episode 1 Recap:
Overall grade: B+
Best line: The dig on Chicago deep-dish (though justice for Chicago deep dish! We can’t all be a quiche)
Second best line: IDK, I just thought it was funny when she said the entire city looked like Ratatouille. (See at top.)
Most believable cultural note: The French staff going through multiple bottles of wine at lunchtime
Least believable cultural note: That a Chicago boyfriend wouldn’t know his girlfriend wanted a glass of wine rather than a beer. Justice for Chicago boyfriends!