Darren Star finds sex in another city with 'Emily in Paris'

Alexis Soloski, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 05 2020 05:33 AM

The first orgasm arrives about halfway through the pilot episode of “Emily in Paris,” the new Darren Star series that came to Netflix on Friday. Emily (Lily Collins), a Midwestern marketing whiz newly arrived in France, enters a boulangerie. After misgendering a chocolate croissant — it’s “un,” not “une” — she buys it and bites in.

“Oh, my God,” she says as her face, framed in close-up above a banana-yellow slip dress, dissolves in ecstasy.

Of course it does. Over the last three decades, Star, a writer and producer who cut his perfect teeth on the coed ensemble dramas “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place” before creating “Sex and the City” and “Younger,” has specialized in letting viewers, especially female viewers, live vicariously. His characters fulfill one fantasy after another — culinary, sartorial, erotic. Though surrounded by libertines, Emily skews more sexually conservative than some recent Star heroines, but she still manages to knock ankle boots with three men in 10 episodes. Pastry is just the beginning.


In early September, Star joined a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles, to which he had recently returned after riding out most of the pandemic in the Hamptons. (Arguably, another fantasy.) The living room, trimly decorated in white and gray, looked roomy.

“Roomy and smoky,” he said. (Less aspirational for some.)

I had wanted to talk to Star about his escapist visions of urban female experience. That you could pursue a wildly varied dating life while always having time for brunch with your girlfriends (“Sex and the City”); that you could somehow redo your adulthood (“Younger”); that you could land a dream job in a dream city with a dream wardrobe to match (“Emily in Paris”).

In the third episode, Emily educates her colleagues on the male gaze, but Star seems to have subsumed his own male gaze, making women the heroines of their own appealing, unlikely stories.

“They live their lives according to what drives them, not necessarily what other people think should drive them as women,” Collins said of Star’s female characters during a telephone interview.

But over the course of an hourlong conversation, in which Star remained charming and poised, if rarely introspective, I began to think I had him all wrong. (Or just possibly that Star had his own shows all wrong?)

He doesn’t think he has any particular knack for writing women or that his women are really any different from his men. And the visual pleasure of the lavish costumes, apartments and restaurants his shows prefer? Those are just the icing on the gâteau, Star said. I’d always thought his shows were pretty much all icing. He disagrees.

Darren Star finds sex in another city with 'Emily in Paris' 1

When asked about writing women, Star downplayed his flair. “I like to say, I think of women as people, not as women,” he said. He writes about women he said, because the genre he works in — romantic comedy — demands it. (His one male-dominated show, “The Street,” was a flop.)

Besides, women are useful to a storyteller. “They express their emotions. They talk. They’re verbal. They’re funny,” he said. “I can identify with their feelings.” (And let’s be honest, who’s more fun to dress?) “But I don’t try to think how would a woman think about it versus how does a man think about it,” he said.

That could endorse a certain criticism that dogged “Sex and the City,” that its roundheeled main characters weren’t really women, but gay men in (very good) disguise. Star, who is gay, considers this criticism unfair.

“I think critics wanted to say these aren’t women,” he said. “These aren’t women we know; we don’t want women to be this way.” It also, he added, demeans gay men, stereotyping them as sex-obsessed.

Still, his heroines’ lives often refract his own daydreams. “I feel like every show I do has to have a reason for me, like I have to connect to what it is about, what I’m writing about,” he said.

Take “Emily in Paris.” Star studied French through college and used to imagine living in Paris. A few years ago, he went for it, renting an apartment in the Marais, trying out his mediocre language skills. “I know how French people look at me; when they look at Americans, I can see some of their prejudices, and I can see some of my prejudices,” he said. So it didn’t take much effort to put himself in Emily’s shoes, no matter how high heeled.

Star had the whole show shot in France, using majority French actors and an exclusively French crew. “It was the most attractive crew I’ve ever worked with,” he said. Luckily, he didn’t have to try out his schoolboy French — they all spoke English.

Together, they created a vision of a glacéed Paris, the city as a matchy-matchy assortment of Ladurée macarons. Nothing is boring, nowhere ugly, no person or outfit unbeautiful.

“I’ve never been so excited to wear clothes,” said Ashley Park, who stars as Emily’s best friend, Mindy. The budget for Collins’ meticulously groomed eyebrows staggers the mind.

Tensions of race, nationality and class? Absent. Those yellow vests demonstrators wear to protest economic inequality? Please. They would clash. After the first trailer dropped, a journalist for the French network RTL wrote a brief, dismissive article arguing that not since the Paris episodes of “Gossip Girl” has a show presented a vision of the city so rose-colored and clichéd.

Star countered — rightly! — that no one should judge a show based on a minutelong trailer, while also acknowledging that the full 10 episodes, several of which name-check “Gossip Girl,” might not disprove those charges.

“I wanted to showcase Paris in a really wonderful way that would encourage people to fall in love with the city in a way that I have,” he said. Besides, he added, “You point the camera anywhere in Paris and it looks great.” (The exception? La Defense, a high-rise district just outside the city. Star used it to stand in for Chicago.)

This is typical of the television he makes. His very first show was set in Beverly Hills, he notes. The Manhattan of “Sex and the City” bears only a passing resemblance to the real borough. Which is part of the appeal.

Star knows that people watch for that superficial dream, but he has never really liked it. He still remembers his disappointment 30 years ago, when he screened an early episode of “Beverly Hills 90210” for a few friends. “I was so excited and proud about the fact that I had this TV series on,” he said. “And all they talked about was ‘Why are they wearing that?’”

He regards the dresses, to-die-for apartments and chic restaurants as containers for scenes, televisual Limoges boxes. “That’s the surface wrapping,” he said. The present underneath? Characters with heart and soul, he said. “Or they’re interesting or they’re crazy, in the case of ‘Melrose Place.’

“Ultimately it’s all about the characters. The rest is entertainment,” he said. “The fantasy always has some connection to something that’s real.”

But what’s so wrong with entertainment? Star has a gift — the kind no one would return — for creating irresistible shows whose links to reality are flimsy at best. Daphne Zuniga, an actress on “Melrose Place” and a former college roommate of Star’s, remembers how he refashioned that series, seducing it away from the heart and soul of the early episodes and toward something more outrageous, satisfying audience desire. “He just led that show right into what the audience seemed to be craving. And then some. And then more,” Zuniga said.

Darren Star finds sex in another city with 'Emily in Paris' 2

“Emily in Paris” offers an Instagram-filtered version of the expat experience, a precisely curated procession of Champagne coupes, stubbled love interests and midnight strolls down cobblestone streets. Removing those filters would mean fewer high jinks and bustiers, less fantasy. It might also require dialogue finer than Emily’s first impression of Paris: “I feel like Nicole Kidman in ‘Moulin Rouge.’”

Me, I’ve always watched Star’s shows largely for those fantasies, those drinks, those streets, which he dismisses as “window dressing.” Which means that I’ve watched them wrong, or that Star underestimates the appeal of window dressing. There are worse things to be than TV’s top travel agent of glamorous escapism.

“Thank God Darren’s not doing documentaries,” Zuniga said. “What a waste.”

She’s right. And for what it’s worth, Emily’s chambre de bonne has very cute curtains.

c.2020 The New York Times Company