The Cosmopolitans, Whit Stillman’s new project about American expats in Paris, is several different kinds of experiment: It’s Stillman’s first foray into television. It’s a return to the slightly more naturalistic style of earlier movies like Metropolitan, rather than the more stylized approach of 2011’s wise and winsome Damsels in Distress. And it’s a commercial experiment, since Amazon is offering the pilot for free; the pilot’s ratings will decide whether Amazon picks up the whole series as part of its Prime content.
That experiment deserves to succeed. Judging by the pilot, The Cosmopolitans will please fans of Stillman’s movies. There’s culture-clash comedy of manners, amiable and opinionated youth, and some very fun dialogue. (“This is my friend Hal. He’s lonely and craves the company of maternal women.”) …
The series title conjures up images of amoral sophisticates, rootless citizens of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. These characters express definite, settled beliefs; they’re comfortable divvying up the world into good and bad choices, good and bad people.
They disagree about which people are sheep and which are gauche goats. There are several exchanges in which one of the Europeans criticizes somebody, and one of the Americans defends him or her—these Americans are chiefly distinguished by their acceptance of others’ bad behavior. The Europeans snipe at each other, on implicitly moral grounds. Sandro calls Fritz “a ridiculous pipsqueak.” Fritz, hissily, on Sandro: “He sort of issssssss a bad sort.” But the Americans try to stay friendly with everyone.
Sandro, who is one of the Americans’ shepherds in Parisian society, dismisses Hal as a “milksop” for continuing to chase after his hot-and-cold girlfriend Clemence. All these Americans are milksops, in the nicest possible way, putting up with the foibles of friends and the casual cruelties of romantic partners.
They know they’re being doormats. They don’t necessarily care. One of the sharpest, subtlest elements of the pilot’s humor is the regularity with which all the characters make what they themselves admit to be bad choices. The pilot is filled with characters refusing to defend themselves. Sandro confronts Hal: “You are pathetical! I can’t believe how you Anglo men let women push you around.… How many times has Clemence dumped you? Maybe twenty, thirty?”
And Hal, calmly: “Nothing like that. Maybe… sixteen? Seventeen?”