While ABC’s Suburgatory was coming to an end, series creator Emily Kapnek was already hard at work on her next half-hour comedy, which is out to provide as much social and cultural commentary as heart and humor. Selfie, a retelling of Pygmalion so modern it sets its protagonist in the world of social media, is coming to a television landscape ripe with rom-coms. Kapnek is out to put her spin on a very specific setting, but it’s her unique ability to write strong opposites attract relationships that she hopes grounds this story and steals focus.
“I love stories where … anyone is sort of silent suffering, like Remains of the Day [in which] you are unable to articulate your true emotion,” Kapnek said when SSN caught up with her at ABC’s Summer TCA.
“We started off talking about relationship shows and potential romantic comedies—what the modern obstacles are and the presence of technology in relationships, the presence of the phone and laptop and tablet at dinner tables and bedrooms and every sort of occasion … As an area to explore, that investigation of someone who is stuck behind that device and in some ways realizes that she’s not getting out of it what she thinks she is, just feels like a great, rich area.”
With Suburgatory, Kapnek took audiences behind the white-gated fences and dark SUV doors of the suburbs, playing up the absurdity of everything from the seriousness of a neighborhood barbecue to a high school athlete getting the hero treatment. But she also exposed an oftentimes raw motivation behind such seemingly silly actions. Selfie is similar thematically.
Karen Gillan is Kapnek’s Eliza, a self-absorbed woman who experiences life from behind her phone screen, who gets thousands of likes but has not one real friend to bring her soup when she is sick. John Cho is Henry, a curmudgeonly co-worker of Eliza’s who thinks the way she lives is ridiculous. While they start out as people you would never expect to think twice about each other, they very quickly realize there is much more than meets the eye, and they actually learn a lot from each other.
“Eliza, we meet her from a place where she has her flaws intact, and by the way, Henry as well … She’s very smart, and she’s very savvy, and in some ways just a little bit of an idiot savant about this stuff, and she’s got stuff to teach him, as well,” Kapnek said. “It is an evolution of these two characters, but ultimately to really root for them to be together, too.”
Kapnek was quick to note that the key to Selfie will be striking the balance not only between how much social media is used as a tool to express characters’ personalities, but also between the characters’ personalities to show where each complements the other.
“Obviously this is [Eliza’s] evolution and growth away from some of those devices, away from some of those habits, but I think one of the interesting things [here] is the generational disconnect between Henry and Eliza, and her feelings and attitudes about sex versus Henry’s,” Kapnek said.
“Eliza does a lot of dating, if you would call it dating. She has a very open attitude, and she’s very comfortable with her sexuality, and so there’s a lot of bad that goes on where Henry is sort of arching an eyebrow and calling out some of his ideals. And she calls into question Henry’s role where he’s sort of a little bit removed from that [but] it is something that he would like to give into. So we have some really funny stories where she convinces Henry to engage in some social media and open a Facebook account and try Tinder for the first time. He does dip a toe in, and it’s fun to watch someone … navigate that world for the first time.”
And while there is certainly a cautionary tale to the extremes Eliza goes to when we first meet her, Kapnek noted that it is the place from which Eliza comes that will make her universally relatable, and interestingly enough, timeless. “Everyone is looking for connection; they are looking to feel whole,” she said. The conflict—and the comedy—will come from what happens when someone with those insecurities gets pushed outside of a comfort zone.
Selfie premieres on ABC tonight, September 30.