I watched Selfie the other day–partially because of the indescribable draw of both Karen Gillian and
the Choverlord John Cho and partially because I’ve been a sucker for adaptations of Pygmalion since a high school classmate lent me her much-beloved VHS copy of My Fair Lady.
Aside from a couple small issues (way too much extended rhyming and verbal hashtagging), I enjoyed the pilot, but I was left with one giant question:
What’s season two?
It’s a question my college professors often asked my classmates and I in our TV writing and development classes. We would pitch a story idea, our professors would listen and then ask “what’s season two?”
It’s an important question, because TV–especially network TV–is all about making money. Who’s going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a TV show that will end after one season, banishing it to a fate of being randomly discovered on Netflix one night when you and your sweetie are arguing about what to watch over take-out. (Like Awake. Anyone remember Awake? I only remember it because Jason Isaacs was in it, and until I googled Jason Isaacs’ filmography I thought the show was called After.)
Selfie is cute and the premise is simple, but it’s a little too simple. The premise of most sitcoms is situational (hence why they’re called sitcoms–situation comedy). In the case of Selfie the situation is Eliza Dooley–Instaqueen and member of the Twitterati. She’s selfish, she’s vapid, and she’s kind of a bitch. After a misadventure with a married man, possible food poisoning, and poorly constructed airplane barf bags lead her to be splashed with vomit on an airplane in front of all her coworkers, Eliza realizes (in the words of the synopsis graciously provided by ABC), “being friended is not the same as having friends,” so she enlists Henry, a marketing guru at her company, to help her rebrand herself (“you mean become a better person?” Henry asks in the pilot. “Or that,” Eliza responds).
Sure there’s a quick moment of romantic tension between Eliza and Henry, and undoubtedly Selfie will introduce a Freddy Eynsford-Hill character (the temptation for a love triangle would be too much to resist), but those aren’t enough to build multiple seasons on. Either Eliza will change (and she won’t need Henry anymore and we won’t have a show anymore) or she won’t (and no one will want to watch her anymore).
Part of what makes long-running sitcoms work is that the situation doesn’t revolve 100% on one character and how she does or does not change. This is why shows like Parks and Rec, The Office, 30 Rock, The Mindy Project, and Community are popular–the situation is a workplace (or, in the case of Community, a school), which allows characters to change and grow while generally remaining in the same physical location.
Eliza and Henry do work together, and I admit I am interested in learning more about the children’s pharmaceutical company that manufactured children’s nasal spray that caused Satanic hallucinations, but it’s not enough.
The other tried-and-true option for a sitcom is a communal situation–Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and Big Bang Theory are classic examples. Instead of a workplace situation they rely on a friend group and flesh out the settings with apartments the characters live in for 10 years (giving me incredibly unrealistic expectations of a. how often people move apartments after college and b. the implied cost of rent in New York City and LA).
Sadly Selfie falls short on this scale as well. In the pilot we’re introduced to Eliza’s hipster neighbor (with book club friends who come complete with tattoo sleeves, chevrons, mason jars and chalkboard paint), but there’s no community there, and even if they developed one, we’re back to square one: When Eliza changes, what’s to keep us tuning in every week?
The pilot makes it clear that Eliza is the situation. Her desire to change is the inciting incident for the entire show–without her desire to change we would just spend 30 minutes a week watching a beautiful woman Instagram her breakfast and selfies (#blessed). Watching her change will be wonderful and hilarious, but after 22 episodes… what else will there be to see?
There’s a reason Shaw ended Pygmalion after Act 5. Once Eliza Doolittle has married Freddy Eynsford-Hill, she’s not nearly as interesting to watch, because half the fun of the play is seeing her struggle to use the Queen’s English “properly,” her moment of triumph at the ball, and standing up to Henry Higgins in the end and leaving her “creator” behind (the way the mythological Galatea abandoned Pygmalion himself).
In a way, the entire pilot encompasses the dramatic structure of the play–the challenge, the lessons, the moment of triumph, and the last word. The pilot leaves us with Eliza vowing to make Henry more fun (even as he vows to make her more kind and selfless).
In the end, as enjoyable and entertaining as Selfie is, it’s lacking something that makes all other sitcoms great. At its heart the show may have more substance than Eliza’s Instagram feed, but it lacks the potential Henry (and the viewers) see in Eliza herself.
Note: Selfie premieres on ABC on Tuesday, September 30th at 8:00pm. The pilot is available to watch now on Hulu and ABC.com