There are some stories that we can accept in modern retellings, even though they express ideas that don’t really jive with modern standards, because they were written a long time ago. But when you translate the ideas to the modern day instead of just doing an adaptation, as ABC’s new sitcom “Selfie” does, the road gets a bit bumpier. “Selfie” is a modernization of the “My Fair Lady” story (or the “Pygmalion” story, if you want to go back a bit further). It tells the story of uptight Henry (John Cho) trying to improve Eliza’s (Karen Gillan) deportment. Except while the original Henry Higgins has a bet that he can pass off a Cockney flower girl as a fancy upper class lady, “Selfie” has to find a modern problem with her.
This is where the issues with “Selfie”‘s premise come in. Eliza’s behavior has to need changing in some obvious way, but there’s something inherently uncomfortable about an older man telling a young woman how to behave herself. We accept Henry Higgins because he’s a funny fellow in a musical. John Cho’s Henry complaining about Eliza’s loose sexual morals and revealing clothing comes across as prudish and retrograde.
The kernel of a better idea is in there. “Selfie” seems to be striving to satirize the social media era by making Eliza obsessed with the online world rather than the real one, but it doesn’t (at least in the pilot) seem too curious about why she’s so successful at it. She has thousands and thousands of Instagram followers, but she’s not a famous person. Shouldn’t this mean she’s an exceptionally good photographer, or really good at capturing the zeitgeist in images or some kind of hashtag-generating wunderkind? Even her sales job, which she’s apparently good at, is dismissed as a sign of how good she looks in a miniskirt. We’re told to judge her for being slutty, and then we’re invited to ogle a totally gratuitous slow pan of Gillan in only her bra and underwear.
Despite these not-insignificant hurdles, “Selfie” is occasionally funny, and provides proof that it’s a damn shame John Cho has gotten to play the romantic lead so few times in his career. He’s a natural, debonair and cutely uptight (the bow ties are a nice touch). And when he laboriously trains Eliza on how to interact like a normal human with the people around her, the show improves immensely. Watching terrible people strive to be better has a lot of humor built into it (See “Arrested Development” and the sadly under-watched “Samantha Who”), and it manages to avoid the creepier aspects of the older man mentor/young woman student dynamic.
If only “Selfie” can back off the slut-shaming and figure out something more original to say about social media culture, they might have something here. Or they can keep coasting on the considerable charms of Cho and Gillan, but we’ll hope for the former.