I came very close to shutting off Selfie in the first few minutes. The new sitcom, which debuts on ABC at the end of September, is currently previewing its pilot episode on Hulu, and that could be a mistake. Watching TV on the Internet allows viewers to judge something super quick, and I foresee a lot of others being turned off by the opening scene, which introduces one of the most obnoxious characters ever to hit the small screen — and that includes a lot of awful reality TV stars. But anyone able to get through the first few minutes without closing their browser and throwing their computer out the window will find something genuinely charming and maybe even a little socially important.
One episode in, Selfie is far from being a good show, but it has a cultural relevance that’s not unlike The Newsroom. Similar to Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama, the new sitcom, which was created by Emily Kapnek (a producer on Hung and Parks and Recreation) is founded in a great idea that unfortunately has to work too closely with the very thing it’s derisively commenting on. Here it’s social media addicts who can’t look away from their phones for a moment, and who don’t have any real friends or true social experiences despite their popularity on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Karen Gillan plays such a person, and it’s interesting that this new role is being unleashed the same week that her last series, Doctor Who, is kicking off its next season. As Eliza Dooley, she’s about as unlikable as her Amy Pond is endearing.
But that is the point. Just as her on-the-nose namesake, Eliza Doolittle, is irritating during the first act of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, Dooley has to be set up as someone in need of fixing. After a gross-out first scene involving vomit and a bunch of web-speak dialogue that might be the worse thing to come out of her mouth, Gillan’s character realizes the depressing reality of her social status offline. But first she still thinks she’s just in need of damage control following the embarrassing incident, so she seeks out her company’s head of marketing to repair her image. He has just managed to rebrand a nasal spray that had caused a huge dip in the company’s profits in its initial release, after all. Why wouldn’t he be able to also totally rework a human personality? Played by John Cho, his name is of course Henry (last name Higenbottom, according to Wikipedia), and he is a delight.
In fact, Cho is charming enough as the uptight straight man — who might need some fixing of his own — that as the pilot goes on, he increasingly balances it out. He also brings to the role a career context through which we can try to appreciate Selfie as a social satire along the lines of the Harold and Kumar movies, particularly the second one. But he and Gillan only have a professional sort of chemistry, and if the goal of the show is to get the two together romantically that’ll be a huge shame. Never mind how its inspiration concludes. Where else the future episodes might take these characters, though, is hard to imagine. Eliza is already well on her way to becoming a fair lady, someone with adequate social manners and appeal, that Henry’s job could presumably be done by second week.
Meanwhile, there isn’t a whole lot of room to go in with the supporting cast. Going by ABC’s promo shot of the show’s ensemble, I’m shocked that a few of them are meant to be significant, particularly Henry’s hardly Pickering-esque friend Ethan (Tim Peper) and a receptionist played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Then there’s Eliza’s wacky neighbor, a homely foil named Bryn (Allyn Rachel), who is one third of the most hilariously spot-on parody of hipster chicks, complete with giant glasses and ukelele. They’ve got the best scene of the pilot when they help Eliza out with a “makeunder” and randomly start a musical number covering Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” The trio (also consisting of Colleen Smith and Amanda Jane Cooper) could be a winning element, though it’s also easy to see them being a one-note joke that wears out its welcome quick. Finally, Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks) for some reason appears in basically a featured extra role in the first episode. If they can find some reason to make him to be a regular, I’ll keep with it for sure.
Selfie has potential for a few things. It could continue to grow on me, mainly thanks to Cho and maybe thanks to Gillan finding more of a soul inside the character. It could continue with its most obnoxious aspects, namely any of the stuff that has to do with depicting Eliza as an awful, attention-starved web junkie, including onscreen devices that play with familiar social media design. In that case I’d probably just hate-watch for a while like I did with The Newsroom. It could also, combined with either of those directions, have an ironic appeal to viewers who like Eliza or are like her and don’t immediately get that the show is making fun of people like her and attempting to be about something more. I was reminded of the documentary The Queen of Versailles, how it seems to cater to people who like bad reality TV but only uses that as a way to lure the audience in and lay on something deeper.
Not that I expect Selfie to ever be all that deep, but I think it could have some substance beneath its awkward comedy and visual gimmickry and general dislike of its own characters. For that it will have to be able get its cake and eat it too, be a dumb sitcom and smart satire at the same time. I can’t recall the last time something like that was achieved.