How ‘Selfie’ Became a Better Show — Just in Time to Get Canceled

Selfie was doomed from the beginning. Its title was both obnoxious and alienating to potential viewers, its premise — a modern-day My Fair Lady — was a turn-off for many, and its obsession with social media made the series a niche concern. It certainly didn’t help that the pilot was extremely irritating. I noted in a pre-air review that I wholeheartedly believed Selfie had massive potential hidden beneath that first episode’s Yelp puns and the fumbling character development. Now, with six episodes aired, Selfie has bettered itself and found its place on television — only to get canceled by ABC.

Throughout the five episodes that followed the pilot, Selfie quickly figured out what it wanted to be and how to accomplish it. Eliza (Karen Gillan) remained a bit of a ditz obsessed with all things Internet, basing her self-worth on the number of Instagram likes a photo received or becoming practically frozen with fear when she learns she’s spending the weekend at a beautiful location without wifi. Henry (John Cho) remained an amusing, too-serious workaholic Luddite, who is unable to navigate even Facebook’s simple platform and believes the song “Working for the Weekend” is about actually working during the weekend. As a pair, they remained polar opposites with undeniable chemistry, a chemistry that is neither ignored nor prematurely developed on the show: coworkers casually comment on their non-relationship, Henry and Eliza dance around words when helping each other out in regards to their respective romantic entanglements, and they repeatedly find themselves in the sort of too-close situations that result in viewers screaming “Kiss her!” at the screen.

But Selfie remains a skilled balancing act; it pays equal attention to Eliza and Henry’s codependent friendship, which stemmed from Eliza’s desire to become a better person, and the romantic comedy will-they/won’t-they storyline that also drives the series. As Henry continues to help Eliza — making her spend a weekend doing something nice for others, teaching her how to make amends with an office nemesis — and she continues to help him — making him spend a weekend having fun, generally loosening him up enough that he snags a promotion — the series becomes stronger and stronger, making it clear that this isn’t a one-sided relationship: Eliza and Henry each have what the other is missing, and when they are together, both personally and professionally, they become better people.

Despite all the potential in Selfie, and despite how good (and even laugh-out-loud funny) the show has become, it still was never destined to last. It’s hard to see how it would reach beyond its small niche audience to the broader, already-established ABC viewership. And considering the show’s subject matter, it seems safe to assume that its fans are also tech-savvy and Internet-obsessed, with many choosing to watch Selfie on basically any platform that isn’t a television.

On ABC, many sitcoms tend to exist in worlds that are not dependent on technology: the wonderful programs Cristela and The Middle feature families that aren’t rich enough to hand iPhones to every child; the main plot of Modern Family‘s Season 1 episode “Game Changer” heavily revolved around an iPad, but instead of inserting the device organically, it became the core focus, and the episode felt like an awkward, too-long Apple commercial; and The Goldbergs takes place in the 1980s — when landlines and Polaroids were standard, not cellphones and Instagram filters. This made Selfie something of an outlier — not to mention a sitcom that, even based solely on the title, would make the perfect punchline for a joke about out-of-touch parents scratching their heads when a preview for it airs during an episode of Castle.

KAREN GILLAN, JOHN CHOBut Selfie is — was — more than the sum of its Facebook likes. Sure, much of the show is devoted to Internet in-jokes (in one episode, Eliza tries to make a friend by stalking her Yelp reviews and chirping back the same opinions; in another; in another, she stages club photos during a babysitting gig in order to one-up her Instagram rival), but there is also so much that isn’t reliant on them. In one of the most touching scenes of the series so far, after learning that Eliza only eats lunch standing over the trash can (she claims it helps her digestion, but really it’s because no one ever ate lunch with her), Henry buys her a personal trash can for his office, so she can eat lunch with him but not necessarily with him — a plot point that remarks on their increasing closeness but also their ongoing hesitation and wariness about becoming too close.

Selfie can also be quietly subversive at times. There are two interracial couples in the series — three when you count the inevitable Henry/Eliza pairing — but they exist in the same way that same-sex couples tend to exist on television these days: without either fanfare or questioning. Then there is Eliza’s character, who, having evolved remarkably from the pilot’s strange portrayal, is not shamed for her “revealing” office outfits (once in a while, Henry will mention them, but she mostly shrugs away his concerns) or for her no-strings-attached relationships. In fact, last week’s “Never Block Cookies” does a bait-and-switch of sorts when it opens with Henry’s conservative, old-fashioned beliefs — he chides Eliza for secretly using online dating apps to help him get laid, claiming that “casual sex is not the cure-all” — but then ends with him getting in a cab with a one-night stand. It’s an even playing field on Selfie, for all races and genders.

All that said: ABC canceled Selfie last Friday because of poor ratings. (Among the other canceled sitcoms so far this season are Manhattan Love Story, A to Z, and Bad Judge — two of which are also romantic-comedies, which doesn’t bode well for the genre’s future on television). The cancellation wasn’t surprising, but the immediate disappointment I felt was — who knew that Selfie would become one of my new favorites of the season? Selfie was never going to have the mass appeal to catch on, no matter how much it continued to improve during its first season, but it’s always frustrating to see a show get canceled just as it finds its footing.