ABC's Selfie: You Can't Do the Internet on Television

Sitcoms like Selfie never quite get the Internet right
Illustration by 731

Selfie, an ABC sitcom that’s a contemporary riff on My Fair Lady, substitutes a twentysomething pharmaceutical sales rep named Eliza Dooley for Eliza Doolittle and a marketing whiz co-worker, Henry Higgs, for Professor Higgins. But the actual update is digital. Within the first three minutes of the pilot, Eliza reveals herself as “Internet-famous”—the target of online praise and derision. A phone to her nose at all times, she’s a caricature of online obsessives, a beast raised in captivity with Wi-Fi.

The sitcom—which the network airs in a prime Tuesday 8 p.m. spot—revolves, as many formulaic comedies do, around the reformation of its protagonist. Eliza, like Doolittle, must become a “lady,” and hashtags are her cockney accent. She realizes this in the first episode, after flaming out on a plane and watching the footage go viral. With no friends to console her, Eliza reevaluates in voice-over: “When Siri is the only person who is there for you, it kind of makes you realize being friended is not the same thing as having friends.”

Enter Henry, a dapper curmudgeon who finds it “rather easy not to form personal connections in a city that only values wireless connections.” And so the Pygmalion restructuring begins, with lots of LOLs and tweets and some real chemistry between actors John Cho and Karen Gillan.

TV in general has a difficult time with technology. (See the clunky Pop Up Video-style texts in shows such as Glee and Sherlock.) Selfie is further hamstrung. It’s not a program that incorporates elements of Internet life—what current show can avoid that?—it’s one whose plotlines couldn’t have existed before the Web. At one point in the pilot, which drew a modest 5.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen, a set of three GIFs (moving like they do online) demonstrates Eliza’s many “feels.” When her co-workers lift their phones, logos of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter swirl in the air. In episode two, there’s a repeating pop-up of Eliza’s paramour texting her, “sup.” It’s kind of fun but quickly starts to feel like the result of a television studio brainstorm: What if we got kids to look up from their iPhones by sticking the same stuff on TV?

Shows that highlight online life best do so mundanely, as something that happens in the background of our lives. In House of Cards, texting is a form of communication—not a plot device. In Silicon Valley, startup culture is a workplace reality. And The Good Wife, one of the best examples of the form, incorporates plotlines about cybersecurity and National Security Agency snooping, because it’s a legal procedural and those are contemporary legal issues. None of these series is pro- or anti-technology, the two sides Eliza and Henry embody.

The Internet, of course, evolves more quickly than a weekly show such as Selfie can. (Even the term “selfie” already feels retro.) It doesn’t help that many of the show’s jokes feel too hyperbolic—sorry, ABC, but no woman has ever played a loud iPhone game throughout a wedding ceremony. “It’s more of a cultural satire than a technology satire,” says Samie Falvey, ABC’s head of comedy. “It’s fun to see Henry fall prey to technology, but you’ll come back for the romance, the office satire.”

So far, Cho is the high point: He’s a charming comedian who manages to pull off some of the script’s oddly serious lines. One of these comes at the end of the pilot, when Eliza reaches for her phone to capture a moment and he says, “You’re getting it, but you are, in fact, missing it.” Maybe he should tell that to the writers’ room.

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