Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Selfie: A Review

I hadn't planned on watching the new television series, Selfie. But it happened. So I figured I'd do a review of the pilot, because why not?

Bow ties aren't always cool.

First things first: the only reason I even heard of this new TV show was because of two reasons: that horrifying title that had nearly everyone immediately dismiss it; and the fact that it stars Karen Gillan from Doctor Who. (If you don't know her from Doctor Who, you might from Guardians of the Galaxy or the well-received horror film Oculus.) American audiences might be more familiar with the other main star, John Cho, who was Harold from the Harold and Kumar series as well as about a hundred other things.

There are so many new shows each fall (or, increasingly, all year round) that it's difficult to pick out what to give a chance. I was going to give this show a pass because the premise didn't really interest me, and it felt like it was going to be one of those horrible, thrown-together projects trying to coast on the talent of the stars.

To be honest, the only reason I watched it in the first place was because I was setting the DVR to record Gracepoint (another show with Doctor Who connections, and is a retelling of the otherwise fantastic Broadchurch) and it just happened to be starting. It was a complete fluke; I had no intention of ever watching this. But I did.

Selfie wasn't the worst TV show I've ever seen. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it has potential. Sadly, it still has a lot of problems. But we'll get to that.

The premise isn't particularly original or notable: Gillan, playing an extreme exaggeration of a narcissistic millennial named Eliza, realizes she is shallow, unliked, and has no real friends--her entire life is online. She convinces Henry, one of the successful salespeople at her company, to "rebrand" her. (Shades of Pygmalion, and the obligatory My Fair Lady after mentioning Pygmalion.)

The pilot kickstarts Eliza's transformation. In the first few minutes, we establish that she's "famous" online and that her success is tied primarily to her sex appeal. She's then publicly humiliated--she finds out, while on a plane ride, the man she's involved with is married. (Other, grosser stuff happens as well.) An entire plane of her coworkers, sick of her nonsense, take great pleasure in disseminating the disaster that's unfolding before them.

This prompts her to talk with Henry to change her "marketing." Henry walks her through her life--she needs to stop spending so much time on her phone and more time taking an active interest in others. As a project, he tells her to accompany him on a date to a wedding, where she has to act professional, not be online, and dress modestly. Unaware of how to do so, she calls her book-club-having neighbor--in true sitcom fashion, they are polar opposites and dislike each other--to help her dress appropriately.

In the end, Harold and Eliza realize that they need each other--he's too stiff and formal, she's too shallow and vapid. Hilarity ensues.

Here are some of the things I liked:
  • Gillan and Cho. The two stars actually have pretty good chemistry together, and both know how to handle the situations they are in and scripts they are given. They actually managed to save some of the dialogue that otherwise would have come across as eye-rollingly trite. Gillan, in particular, has a way of reacting to situations with a simple facial expression that says a lot more than words.
  • The show has everything set up right. We've established her workplace and its various dynamics; we've established her proximity to a bunch of girls who could develop and be her friends; we've established reputations and histories for the main characters; and we've established the Henry-Eliza relationship.
  • There is a lot of clever writing. The entire scene with Charmonique is hilarious (each actor in that scene plays off one another excellently), and the closing scene (where Eliza and Henry have a heartfelt conversation with one another) is genuinely both charming and funny. While a lot of the writing was sloppy, there was a lot of good stuff, too. There's usually something that salvages most scenes.
  • So far, the pilot has done a good job at balancing comedy with plot development. Hopefully it will be more the former than the latter once they get things established, but right now it was reasonably good pacing.
Let's look at the things that didn't work so well:
  • First off: That title has to go. It's horrible. Sitcoms have survived name changes before. This is a good candidate to try. I suppose we should all just be grateful it wasn't called #Selfie.
  • The first five minutes of the show were almost unbearable. The flashy and unnecessary social media references, the painfully obvious exposition, the vomit...if they were trying to hook new viewers, this was the clumsiest way to do so.
  • They're trying too hard to cram social media in everything, including within the show itself and the jokes. ("All my friends' names start with an at symbol!") We get it. it's barely been halfway through the first episode, and it's already old. Move on.
  • Karen Gillan is hot. Yeah, yeah, sex sells, blah blah blah. But in the first five minutes we get Karen Gillan completely naked (strategically and briefly, of course) and then another long pan of her in her underwear (justified, but still). The latter scene, in particular, could have been played up for much more comedic value instead of simply presenting a chance to ogle her, but they decided to go the purile route instead. Far be it for me to insist on less scantily clothed Karen Gillan, but she's an amazing talent and her abilities are wasted when her body is used as a crutch when comedy should be the focus.
  • The script needs some work. While there was some legitimately clever writing, the rest of the other writing was clumsy and heavy-handed. during the closing, they actually say (this is a direct quote):
Henry: You shouldn't feel compelled to make everything so sexual.
Eliza: And you shouldn't be so uptight.

Really? Maybe there wasn't a frying pan nearby they could have beat us over the head with so they had to go with that. There's actually a lot of dialogue like this. Some of it, perhaps, can be forgiven--this is the pilot, after all, and they have to cram a lot of information in a small amount of time. It just seems like it could be handled better.
  • There's a lot of weird stuff that happens. The friends that help out with Eliza's makeover? They suddenly start singing Lady Gaga. Also, one girl carries a ukelele. Why? Who knows? Henry--who heretofore didn't seem like the type--suddenly starts talking in rhyme. Why? Who knows? There's a few other scenes that just made no sense. While some of them were funny, they just seem more awkward than anything else.
  • A lot of people were upset about the "sexual politics" of the show. While I get some of the criticism, most of it's clearly there to establish characterization and draw stark lines between people. If they keep it up I can see it being a problem, but right now I think it's just lazy writing and over-sensitive critics.
On the face of it, it seems like there's more bad than good. But not really. A lot of the bad can be chalked up to this being the pilot; they had to establish the premise and introduce characters. Other shows do it more skillfully, but it's not the worst thing in the world for a pilot to

Is the show worth watching? Honestly, I don't know. If they had a less talented cast, I'd just chalk this up to another forgettable sitcom that tried to pander to a specific demographic that wasn't me. But the abilities of both Gillan and Cho are amazing, and they carried this subpar script along to where I didn't want to stop watching. And yet one gets the feeling that the writers and creators are hung up on the "social media" gimmick, which is going to get real old real fast.

Will I continue to watch Selfie? I honestly don't know, but I doubt it. At the end of the show I didn't really care what happened to any of the characters. But I'm more than willing to watch again if I hear that things improve, and the good news is that while a lot of the writing was awkward and misfired too often, it did have a fairly decent foundation. So we shall see.

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