Thanks to Instagram and Facebook, "selife" was named Oxford's word of the year for 2013. But is Selfie really a good name for a TV show?
"We definitely talked about it," series creator Emily Kapnek told reporters at Tuesday's Television Critics Association fall previews. "Selfie is a very provocative word, but for us, it really speaks to the disease that Eliza has in that she is consumed by this world and is keeping the world at arm's distance.. ... It felt natural to keep it as the title."
In the series, which premieres this fall on ABC, Doctor Who alum Karen Gillan plays vapid social media maven Eliza Dooley who, after realizing how empty her life is despite her thousands of Twitter followers, hires Henry (Sleepy Hollow's John Cho) to help make over her image. "I certainly know plenty of people who are ever-connected to their phones," Kapnek said. "It does feel very topical and very relevant to me as an area to explore."
The subject was especially fun for Scotland native Gillan, who said she watched American TV shows and went to SoulCycle classes in Los Angeles to perfect her American accent and learn other American colloquialisms "such as 'jelly.' I didn't know what that meant," she said. However, although she's on Twitter, Gillan admits she still has a few blind spots. "I don't understand hashtags. I don't know what they're for," she said. "I should probably know that." (Cho, on the other hand, has a much more "contentious relationship" with Twitter. "I am grouchy about it like Henry," he said.)
Although the premise of Selfie is very similar to Pygmalion and subsequently My Fair Lady, Kapnek said she was really just trying to write a show about modern obstacles in relationships and specifically "the presence of technology in relationships." "We came into the Pygmalion element of it from behind," Kapnek said before giggles started to ensue on the panel.
While the story might be a familiar one, viewers may have a hard time feeling sorry for someone as self-centered and vain as Eliza. "I think at the start, it's very natural to judge Eliza and in some ways, [to] share Henry's attitude and be a bit repelled by what she represents and the work she needs to do," Kapnek said. "It's a very tall order to find empathy for a character like that early on."
However, Kapnek warns that the pilot is "jumping off point" for her, as well as for Henry."True to the original Eliza, we meet her in a place where she has her flaws in tact. By the way, Henry as well," Kapnek said. "It's certainly not where the series ends. It's really about the evolution of these two characters." But that evolution won't happen too quickly. "There are baby steps and some of these habits die hard," she added. "It's a little bit of one step forward, two steps back."
As time goes on, Eliza will also be able to teach Henry a thing or two. "Eliza does a lot of dating, if you call it dating. She has a very open attitude. She's very comfortable with her sexuality so there's a lot of that that goes on where Henry is arching an eyebrow," Kapnek said. "She actually convinces Henry to engage in some of the social media stuff and open a Facebook account and try Tinder for the first time. It's our intention that the line between student and teacher get blurry very quickly."
Does that blurriness also mean there is the potential for a romantic relationship between Eliza and Henry? "We were surprised by how much it popped for us in the pilot," Kapnek said of the chemistry between Gillan and Cho. "It's definitely something we want to grow slowly but we have our work cut out for us with Eliza."
Selfie premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 30 at 8/7c on ABC.
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