INTO THE NEXT STAGE: ‘Selfie’ Surprises in More Ways Than One

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GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTONBy GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

When I first saw a billboard advertising ABC’s new sitcom “Selfie,” my first reaction was, “Not again!”

If you see the art accompanying today’s column, you might see why I jumped to that conclusion. In the foreground was the face of a white woman. In the background, with his face partially obscured, was an Asian man. Even so, I could tell it was John Cho.

I immediately thought of the poster for the 2000 Warner Bros. Pictures movie “Romeo Must Die,” which co-starred now-deceased pop singer Aaliyah and was the second of Jet Li’s U.S.-produced movies.

In that movie poster, Aaliyah was in the foreground, with Li in the background, wearing aviator shades that hid his eyes.

It was as though Warner Bros.’ marketing department thought they could trick people into seeing the movie, people who might not look closely enough to see Li was Asian, people who they presumably thought wouldn’t see a Hollywood movie co-starring an Asian man. (Contrasting the progress in media depictions between blacks and Asians, not so much of a problem with emphasizing the lead casting of an African American, Aaliyah in this case.) This, despite Li being a bona-fide overseas star with a U.S. fanbase. Argh.

Fourteen years later was history repeating itself? To John Cho, of “Harold & Kumar” fame, not to mention the new incarnation of Mr. Sulu in the revamped “Star Trek” movies? That’s totally insulting, right?

selfieThankfully, I was wrong. After reading about the premise of “Selfie” (which happens to be produced by Warner Bros. Television) — and seeing the pilot episode, more about which is to come — I realized that what I was in fact seeing was something a little more thoughtful than a marketing department trying to sneak in an Asian.

Actually, as I interpret the ad, it’s Cho in character as “Henry” (no last name, according to Internet Movie Database) as he “photobombs” Eliza Dooley, played by Karen Gillan. (Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the term “photobomb,” that’s when someone intentionally jumps into a photo as it’s being taken, either to ruin it or to insert oneself into a photo they weren’t invited into. Also, “selfie” refers to taking a self-shot photo [alone or with friends]by extending one’s arm and pointing it at oneself with a smartphone with camera functionality.)

Like the word “photobomb” and its title, “Selfie” is filled with the slang, memes and tropes that have arisen is this digital, social media era of narcissistic instant gratification and presumed adulation.

You may have also noticed the similarity of the name “Eliza Dooley” and “Eliza Doolittle,” doubtless a nod to George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” (Cho’s character Hank, meantime, is surely an allusion to Professor Henry Higgins, sans a last name. Maybe he’ll get one if the show survives.)

The convention of using “Pygmalion” as a springboard continues. Eliza Dooley, who is well-played by Gillan, is a top sales rep for a large pharmaceutical firm. (Eliza Doolittle, incidentally, sold flowers on the street.) Instead of being from a disadvantaged social caste, this Eliza is a self-obsessed, narcissistic, vainglorious snob.

While she is a queen in her virtual life of social media with friends and followers galore, in real life she learns she has no real friends.

romeo must dieEnter co-worker Hank, who has received accolades from the head of the company for “rebranding” troubled products and turning them into winners. Eliza realizes she needs a makeover and demands Hank’s help.

At first, Hank wants nothing to do with this compassionless lout of a human being. But he takes her on as a challenge, much like Henry Higgins took on Eliza Doolittle to turn a street urchin into someone resembling a duchess.

Turns out, of course, that Hank has his problems, too. While he’s clearly the grownup between the two, he’s a bit of a martinet, as well as smug, self-righteous and no fun. There is no love in his life, as a result. It’s clear that Eliza and Henry can help each other overcome their respective weaknesses. “Selfie” turns out to be a fast-paced, funny romp and critique of the worst of the worst habits of shallow people armed with smartphones.

Cho is solid and Gillan shows a knack for light comedy and a willingness to play the fool. She also shows off her bikini-ready body and while she’s got legs, it’ll be up to audiences to determine whether “Selfie” does. Hopefully the younger demographic will find the show funny as it rips into the foibles of their age range and keep it from cancellation. I hope it survives the cut.

Even though “Selfie” doesn’t debut on network TV on Tuesday, Sept. 30, you can watch it now (like I did) on Hulu.com. If you have an aforementioned smartphone (or tablet, laptop or smartTV) — plus about 30 minutes of free time — you can check out the first episode, free of charge.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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