To Like, or Not to Like?

09.30.14 9:50 AM ET

‘Selfie’ Is Both a Brilliant and Terrible TV Show

Cute, occasionally clever, and almost instantly dated, it manages to be both fall’s most inventive and most maddening sitcom. What do we make of this modern ‘My Fair Lady’?

Selfie, horrendous title aside, is a peculiar TV show.

It’s unusual that a TV show is so simultaneously of-its-time and instantly dated. It’s not often that a comedy is both this endearing and repugnant. It’s hard to remember when a sitcom was as relatable and inviting as it is alienating.

Rarely is a TV show as brilliant and as terrible as Selfie.

The biggest issue with Selfie, first, is the natural aversion a massive segment of the viewing audience will have to it on face value.

A modern—so modern it’s already almost antiquated—take on My Fair Lady (Pygmalion, for purists), Selfie chronicles a vapid, social media-obsessed salesgirl named Eliza Dooley—get it?—on her journey to realizing that, once she turns her iPhone camera away from her pouting face and takes her eyes off Instagram, there’s a world of people out there who need her empathy. The guru guiding her mission to becoming a fully realized human: a buttoned up marketing expert named Henry—seriously, get it?—who sees every misstep, such as Eliza’s entire existence, as a rebranding opportunity.

Eliza, possibly the worst girl you will ever meet, needs to be rebranded as someone you could tolerate spending more than five minutes in a room with. And, with her opening monologue about being “Insta-famous,” it’s likely that many people won’t be willing to give her that long.

And that even skips right over the biggest, biggest issue with Selfie, which is its aforementioned abominable title.

ABC has a history of bad titles that seize on hip lexicon of the moment in favor of accurately describing what the show is actually about: Cougar Town and Trophy Wife, for example. In both of those cases, showrunners ended up publicly admitting that the titles had nothing to do with their shows’ content, but it was already too late: the misguided appropriation of buzzwords had already turned off the viewing audience, who didn’t bother to check and see if the terribly named sitcoms were good. (Both were excellent.)

Selfie, based on the visceral recoiling that a good portion of people involuntarily jerk into when the name is brought up, will likely suffer the same fate. But silly as the new show, premiering Tuesday night on ABC, can be at times, it doesn’t deserve that doom.

In fact, the pilot is actually a prolonged rant against the very behaviors that many people wrongfully assume the show celebrates. “This is exactly what I can’t stand,” Henry (John Cho) says after meeting Eliza for the first time. “Social media is this giant fingernail scratching this woman’s itch for constant attention. Look at me, something good happened! Hashtag #blessed. Oh look at me, something bad happened. Hashtag #still blessed…”

Selfie, you see, is actually very anti-selfie.

It also, through Karen Gillan’s performance as Eliza, does a little bit of psychoanalyzing, explaining how those people whose self-esteems live and die with the number of Facebook likes on their recent status update got to be so awful.

Eliza was the ugly duckling of her high school, voted “Most Butt” of her senior class. When she groomed herself into a powerful, attractive, and Internet-famous person years later, she lost her sense of reality—until public humiliation made her the butt of the joke once again. “I spent years laughing at stupid idiots on the Internet,” she says. “And now, the stupid idiot was me.” It turns out that self-inflated egos, 140-character hubris, and hashtag humblebrags—though superficial—can still create a sense of worth that is painful to fall from.

The show is written from Eliza’s perspective, and she narrates events with groan-worthy, corny-as-hell, yet somehow endearing and even kind-of-clever puns, as if Carrie Bradshaw were writing her Sex and the City column in 140-character tweets and emoticons.

“When Siri is the only one who’s there for you, it makes you realize: being friended is not the same thing as making friends,” she says, as an example.

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When you suspend disbelief and watch Selfie through a prism where it’s a fantasy-world alternate reality, where people speak in self-aware, carefully crafted maxims and quotables, lines like this are actually really funny—exceptionally astute and observant about today’s culture. But if you look at Selfie as some sort of realistic meditation on a social media-obsessed, narcissistic generation—which it’s tempting to do, especially as some of Eliza’s self-serving transgressions hit closer to home than others—then you’ll likely find writing like this to be maddening.

Then there’s the question of timeliness. This TV show is called Selfie, a word that all “the kids” were saying and now has made its way to grandparents trying to be hip. Its timeliness, then, is its blessing—lots of really smart, relevant jokes—and its curse—those jokes are going to look really dumb and outdated really soon, if not by the end of the next commercial break.

There’s a fun thing to do when watching reruns of sitcoms like Will & Grace or Frasier, where a reference is made to something in pop culture that seemed like a big deal at that moment but which has long-since evaporated from our collective conscience. A Nancy Kerrigan joke, perhaps. Or a reference to Enron, or Elian Gonzalez, or the Baha Men. That time Hugh Grant picked up a prostitute. You can almost pinpoint the exact date, or at least to the week, of when that joke was written.

Selfie is almost exclusively made of those kinds of jokes.

A lot of them are really sharp, hyper-specific references that land laughs because they’re actually pretty inventive. “I waited until the coast was clear, like Katy Perry’s skin on Proactiv,” Eliza says. (C’mon! That’s worth an LOL.) While in the throes of depression over her married lover, none of Eliza friends were able to console her, because “all the girls I knew were either drunk or at SoulCycle.” Topical! And funny!

Other attempts at right-now humor, however, were more cringe-worthy, like when Eliza says she is “willing to make like Elsa and ‘Let It Go.’” Just no. No more Frozen. No more.

But topical as a lot of Selfie’s writing is, there are lines that are timeless. “Eliza, I’m sure you’re aware it is possible to be beautiful on the outside, but still ‘butt’ on the inside,” Henry says. “Like Gwyneth Paltrow,” Eliza replies, finally understanding the concept of inner beauty. GOOP jokes will never die.

As one might expect when a TV show is both so appealing to one demographic and so toxic-seeming to another, early buzz about Selfie is wildly polarizing. Fittingly to that point, its Rotten Tomato score (as of Tuesday evening) was a flat 50 percent. Polarizing!

Matt Webb Mitovich at TV Line called it “fall’s best new half-hour comedy” and Andy Greenwald at Grantland thinks it has “the highest upside” of the all the freshman comedy offerings. On the flip side is the Orlando Sentinel’s Hal Boedeker: “Beware of this mess.”  

So, yes, in other words, Selfie is both brilliant and terrible. Just like Gwyneth Paltrow.