Scan the television listings and you’ll find quite a few shows based on older source material. There’s Gotham, which imagines the lives of Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and the villains before the comic book. There’s Sleepy Hollow, which has Ichabod Crane traveling 250 years through time to unravel mysteries. And Elementary offers us a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Miss Watson. Joining the list this fall was Selfie, a remake of My Fair Lady—which is, itself, a musical reworking of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the classic tale of Professor Henry Higgins betting that he can pass off a poor Cockney woman, Eliza Dolittle, as a member of the upper class by teaching her to speak proper English.
Selfie’s creator, Emily Kapnek, deserves credit for mining this vein because, for so many of us, watching any makeover—of a housewife or a house—is entertaining wish-fulfillment and because (as the title makes clear) this is a comedy focused on our current cultural moment of self-obsessed, nonstop social media posting, tagging, and tweeting.
In Selfie, Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) has 263,000 Twitter followers but no real friends. She is a social media celebrity with no concrete attachments or any sense of decorum or taste. She is also a former high school outcast, so her online popularity seems to her like the perfect reflection of her transformation.
In the opener, Eliza suffers a series of public embarrassments, witnessed by most of her coworkers and providing ample evidence that she’s in need of a different kind of makeover. She identifies her buttoned-down co-worker Henry (John Cho) as her salvation. He is a marketing genius, so she begs him to “rebrand” her.
Thereafter, Henry spends part of every episode trying to teach Eliza why she makes almost no meaningful connections in her life. She has a better sales record than anyone else at her company, but she doesn’t know anyone’s name. In one episode, Eliza has to learn why her text-message hookups with another coworker are not the way to go if she wants deeper personal links. Her overly suggestive wardrobe is also mined for laughs.
Meanwhile, Eliza is supposed to be having an equally powerful impact on Henry. She schools him about becoming a more open and spontaneous person, and, over the first seven episodes, none-too-subtle hints point to a future love-match between this odd couple.
There’s a serious problem with Selfie, however, since it lacks the one basic element of any good makeover: a goal. The show is keenly aware of the vice of online celebrity and over-devotion to surface attributes such as looks and fashion. But when it comes to identifying true virtues and deeper character traits, the writers don’t have much imagination. Henry tells Eliza that sleeping around with men who don’t show any real tenderness or interest in her personality is a mistake. But there’s little indication that anyone working on Selfie knows what the opposite—a mutually supportive and healthy relationship—would look like. Even Henry, the teacher, doesn’t have a clue: He gets hooked on Facebook only to find that a former girlfriend dumped him and married someone else because he wouldn’t prioritize her over his work.
This is where source material could actually be helpful, since My Fair Lady has a very solid point of view about the virtues of bourgeois values. Of course, it critiques the shallow pretentions of the upper class, and Professor Higgins is gleeful about trying to fool the aristocracy by having them fall in love with, and accept, a flower girl. Beyond that, though, the musical has a serious message about love and responsibility.
Indeed, one of the best lessons of My Fair Lady is the way in which both Eliza’s father Alfred and Higgins acknowledge that fidelity and commitment are better than remaining poor, full of vice, and selfish. Early on, Higgins sings about the importance of fending off women’s attempts to domesticate men, while Alfred explains to Higgins (while extorting drinking money from him) that, if he were to acquire wealth and status, he’d be required to become morally responsible rather than reprehensible. Yet, nearly against his will, Higgins grows “accustomed” to Eliza and realizes (almost too late) that he can’t do without her. And Eliza’s father, who had felt lucky to have avoided marrying his woman, ends up having to “get to the church on time” because, with his surprisingly acquired place among the bourgeoisie, he has to do the right thing and marry her.