“Emily in Paris” has a tenuous relationship with reality. Here, pandemics never happen and the stakes rise only (and precisely) to the level that keeps you hitting that “Next Episode” button on Netflix, which is the level perfected by early 2000s chick-lit novels and rom-coms — maximum pleasure for minimal pain, strain or thought. The title character’s adventures play out exactly the how the 13-year-old in “13 Going on 30” imagined adult life would: all champagne, gorgeous clothes, work meetings where you rock a presentation, girls’ trips to St. Tropez and men falling over themselves to date you regardless of your personality.
The series’ first season was a surprise hit last year, probably for exactly these reasons. The 10-episode second season shows up at the same time of year, perfectly positioned to fill a few pleasurably mindless hours of downtime between Christmas and New Year’s. And it serves up more of the same, continuing to follow Emily (Lily Collins), the oblivious young American marketing executive, as she bungles French, plans parties and social media campaigns for luxury goods and becomes increasingly ensnared in a love triangle with her charming French friend Camille (Camille Razat) and her dreamy chef neighbor Gabriel (the irresistible Lucas Bravo).
The second season finds Emily fitting in at least a little more at the marketing firm where she works, Savoir, but struggling with how much to commit to her life in Paris, given that she’s staying just “one year.” Of course, in our world, a year has passed, but in her world, time and seasons are a blur, activated for plot purposes. It’s an indeterminate time of year and an indeterminate amount of time has passed since we last saw her.
Creator Darren Star has found a startlingly precise formula that works for him: Give us a bumbling heroine, plop her into a fish-out-of-water workplace scenario, surround her with quirky supporting characters cast beautifully, fill her life with parodically funny clients and model-hot love interests and then let legendary costume designer Patricia Field dress everyone delectably. Shoot it all gorgeously, on location, in an iconic city, et voila! It’s a riff on what he did way back in 1998 with “Sex and the City” and distilled to a science more recently with “Younger.” It has proven officially duplicatable with “Emily.”
It’s not high art. This is not a show that will change the world or reveal deeper truths about humanity. But it’s awfully pleasurable, like a well-crafted pop song. “Emily” also took some notes from the virulent critical response to its first season, and this proves it can be a boon to listen to your critics. This season, Emily is not constantly explaining to French people what is wrong with their culture. She posts fewer totally inane photo captions online. (Or at least we see far fewer of them.) She is not hailed as a marketing genius for coming up with banal ideas; in fact, she fails often this season, and comes off as the tiniest bit humbled. There’s an entire episode dedicated to how bad her French is when she fails to move up to the level 2 class, complete with subtitles showing us how she’s mangling the language. As a result, the cringe factor overall is reduced by about a third.
Collins is an inherently watchable actress, but Emily is still less interesting than several of the characters surrounding her. And those characters contribute to much of the fun. This season wisely gives more story to two of the best: First, Emily’s roommate, Mindy, who left her wealthy Chinese family to make it on her own, makes a more serious effort to start her singing career from the bottom, performing in a drag club and busking with a band. This is particularly great news since she’s played by Broadway star Ashley Park (best known for the stage musical version of “Mean Girls”); she’s wildly appealing, in general, and her vocal performances are a highlight. (Not everyone can pull off a solo cover of BTS’s “Dynamite.”)
Second, Emily’s prickly boss, Sylvie, gets more backstory and a complicated personal life that could threaten Savoir. In the role, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu is French glamour incarnate, and she brings her “Call My Agent!” sheen to this American-centric operation. She has many of the best lines. Approached to handle a leek rebranding, she says, “Savoir doesn’t market root vegetables.” When Emily is struggling with her French while writing a letter, the English subtitles have her asking Sylvie, “Is ‘I am sad that I am naughty’ grammatically correct?” Sylvie answers, in deadpan English, “It’s definitely in your voice.”
If you’re a hate-watcher, this season still has its share of insufferable social media posts and ridiculously over-the-top moments. (Why, yes, the supposed social media genius does caption her photo “Do you know the way to St. Tropez?” when she’s off to … guess where.) You still get the feeling that Emily is unaware of her great fortune. There’s still no indication of why she must share a tiny hovel with Mindy when both women have designer wardrobes. It’s still easier to understand what Emily sees in her paramours than to grasp what they see in her (besides the fact that she’s cute and well-dressed). What does she want? Why has she barely grown in her time in Paris? Mindy has a far more interesting backstory and more compelling motivations — why isn’t this show about her?
Still, there’s something to be said for banal fun, especially these days.