On the Internet: Amazon Prime
The director of 80s/90s indie darlings Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, Whit Stillman has a very particular voice. Indeed, a friend of mine interviewed him once and wryly observed that Stillman had complained to him with great specificity about America’s prejudice against ‘the upper middle classes’.
And it’s true (perhaps with reason). Shows such as Royal Pains, Suits and Rush may be about rich people but they’re very much on the outside looking in, laughing at the rich rather than with them, and not really understanding them as a group.
By contrast, Stillman is a friend of the Kennedy family, Harvard-educated and a europhile, who’s lived and worked in Spain. He's very much an insider, possibly a unique one*. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in many ways, he is the American male Jane Austen of our time, casting his eye over the manners, codes and mating rituals of the American rich with almost the same wit and acuteness that Austen did with the equivalent society of her time.
So it’s no big surprise that The Cosmopolitans, Stillman’s first (Internet) TV project, coalesces the themes of both Metropolitan and Barcelona to depict a group of rich young US ex-pats, desperately looking for love in Paris wherever they can find it, whether that be each other, Canadians, the French or any other Europeans that come by to mock their American ways, the quality of their French or their attempts to become that ultimate accolade – a Parisian.
Stillman has a lovely way with observation and takes dialogue and people in unexpected directions. His characters are as far as possible away from the nerds of Silicon Valley, the gun-toting police of Blue Bloods and the poor underclass of Shameless. They are as East Coast liberal as it’s possible for Americans to get, even those who allegedly come from Alabama.
Yet without this pervasive cultural background to draw on, Stillman is still able to make explicit their rules and dreams as comfortably as Austen’s Lizzy Bennet or Wilde’s Lady Bracknell did, with Chloë Sevigny’s ex-pat fashion journalist, for example, explaining how one doesn’t come abroad merely to date Americans yet it’s never done to date a Frenchman.
Where it perhaps falls down a little – assuming, as with Girls, you can survive a whole episode without wanting to knife the equivalent over-privileged, somewhat fey boy-men that populate the drama – is the characters, who largely are not so much people as a group of pithy social comments and chances for pseudo-Wildean epigrams. Similarly, the Europeans who do show up, both French and Italian, are chances for Stillman to extemporise on either Europeans or Americans.
But The Cosmopolitans is like nothing that’s on regular TV at the moment. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, do yourself a favour and watch it to see something that isn’t a procedural, isn’t about computer programmers, doesn’t involve middle Americans in middle Americans, isn’t a period drama and is all about people. Just for a change.
And unless I’m hallucinating, you can do that using the video below.
* Lena Durham being possibly the other challenger to the crown