‘Emily in Paris,’ ‘Ted Lasso’ Producers on Avoiding the ‘Dumb American Abroad’ Trope
You say tomato, I say tomato, let’s call the whole thing a series.
Fish out of water comedies are a dime a dozen on television (look no further than recent Emmy darling “Schitt’s Creek”), but a string of new shows are taking those fish and flying them across the Atlantic, specifically to France and the United Kingdom.
While it might appear easy to play for a laugh out of a quirky British accent or a snobbish French custom, the creators and producers of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris” and “The Duchess,” and Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso” know there is a need for nuance to move beyond the “ugly, dumb American abroad” trope, as the latter’s showrunner Bill Lawrence puts it.
“Emily in Paris,” which debuts Oct. 2 on Netflix, centers around a 20-something marketing exec (played by Lily Collins) who moves to Paris for work via a stroke of good fortune. However, creator Darren Star (known for creating mega-hits like “Sex and the City,” “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Younger”) says he wanted to make Emily a character “whose dream it wasn’t necessarily to fly off to Paris.”
“She is sort of thrown in, which makes her less starry-eyed about being there,” Star says. “She’s not someone who’s been taking French. She goes there with this very American sense of ‘I don’t speak the language and I’m here for a career opportunity.’ I think she comes in with a head full of steam about who she is as an American and what she can contribute, that is not well received.”
Of course Emily’s culture clash is at the cœur of the show’s comedy, but Star says he deliberately set out to “celebrate differences,” rather than lean “into negative stereotypes.”
“What clashes at the beginning is a sense of style and relating to people — how here we basically prioritize work above everything,” Star says. “Emily has this intense desire to be successful — not that French people don’t want to be successful — but I just feel like there’s different styles and ways of relating.”
Workplace culture has come under intense scrutiny since the rise of the #MeToo movement, and there are certainly some comments made by her French colleagues that Emily deems inappropriate. Star says that having a majority French cast was very helpful in capturing those moments, as they gave their perspective on “the strong opinions and attitudes” of French culture.
“There’s a sense of political correctness in our workplace which maybe hasn’t quite infiltrated France to the degree it has here. I think Emily encounters more of a relaxed attitude, in terms of jokes and everything,” he says. “Her co-workers aren’t quite on their guard, and I think the corporate culture she finds is a little more relaxed.”
Star reveals himself to be a long-time Francophile, and lived in Paris for a brief period. His show, he says, is a “love letter to Paris, like ‘Sex and the City’ is a love letter to New York.”
In a similar fashion, Katherine Ryan says she wanted to “celebrate London,” her home for over a decade, through her Netflix comedy “The Duchess,” which launched on the streamer in the middle of September.
The Canadian comedian’s time spent living in the U.K. and her rise to the top of the British comedy scene had a significant influence on her series. She recalls being fascinated by reality shows and the British tabloid culture — the consequences of both are explored on “The Duchess.”
“When I came over to the U.K., I would do stand-up about pop culture and that seemed very different: It was not in keeping with the usual British way of things; I definitely had North American influences that were glaringly obvious,” Ryan says. “The more time I spent here, the more I got into North London life, raising my daughter, interacting with the other parents, developing as a British comedian. I think the comedian that I am now is quite an eclectic mixture of the two. So ‘The Duchess’ has elements that are such a love letter to Britain, I hope.”
The titular character is a firecracker ceramicist with no filter whatsoever. Ryan describes her as “full-scale North American,” which contrasts so starkly with her little girl Olive (Katy Byrne), a “quintessentially polite English child.”
Ryan mined her own experiences navigating the British school system with her daughter as an inspiration for the clash of parenting styles in “The Duchess.”
“A lot of people are preoccupied with acceptance, and that’s very natural,” she explains. “There is a demographic of mums that have the same behaviors and wear the same clothes. They are all very involved with the cake sales, they are very involved with the school and they seem preoccupied with acceptance. Katherine is the antithesis, she really doesn’t care.”
Whereas Katherine the character is outspoken and brash, another North American character living in London has won over audiences with his more wholesome approach.
When Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) first arrives in London to take over as the coach for the AFC Richmond soccer team (or football, more accurately) in “Ted Lasso,” which streams its first season finale Oct. 2, he’s immediately written off by his players, the press, and the highly opinionated fans.
To capture the world of football, which in many senses is akin to a religion in England, Lawrence says they hired two British writers with connections to the sport.
“It was really important on this show to get a couple people that dig football,” Lawrence says. “Not only did they have to be great comedy writers, but one of them, his dad is a lifelong Tottenham fan and goes to every game, and one of them, her father is a lifelong Crystal Palace who goes to every game. They know the ins and outs of fandom there and that was huge, especially when we got to England and started shooting matches and practice.”
The series is based on the character that Sudeikis created for an online sketch, who was a loud-mouthed, broader caricature. To form a compelling protagonist for a longer format, Lawrence says he and Sudeikis sought to depart from some of the “snarky, edgy, cynical comedy” they’re used to, and lean into a character who becomes a force for good in a foreign environment.
Much like Emily’s co-workers, almost all of Ted’s harshest critics eventually soften to his inimitable charm and good-heartedness.
“Instead of the ugly, dumb American abroad, we wanted him to be the best version of an American, which is ignorant, but with curiosity. Ignorant with arrogance is the prevailing tone right now, that attitude of ‘I don’t know anything about that but I’m the best in the world,’” Lawrence says. “We wanted a Will Rogers type that doesn’t necessarily know the nuances of everything, but is curious and happy to find out.”
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