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Emily Carey in Netflix YA Fashion Comedy

Emily Carey in Netflix YA Fashion Comedy

One of the trickiest aspects of HBO’s House of the Dragon was the way viewers spent roughly half of the drama’s first season with “younger” versions of our two heroines — Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower — before a time jump brought longer-term stars Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke to the screen.

That put a lot of pressure on Milly Alcock and Emily Carey to anchor those initial episodes, which they did extremely well. Alcock had the greater visibility, quickly becoming a red carpet favorite and setting herself up for the opportunity to play Supergirl. Carey’s first major House of the Dragon follow-up, Netflix‘s adaptation of Holly Smale’s coming-of-age Geek Girl series, isn’t as high profile as joining DC’s House of Zor-El, but it’s a solid showcase for its 21-year-old star.

Geek Girl

The Bottom Line

Sweet and amusing, if also a bit bland and familiar.

Airdate: Thursday, May 30
Cast: Emily Carey, Sarah Parish, Emmanuel Imani, Liam Woodrum, Zac Looker, Tim Downie, Jemima Rooper, Rochelle Harrington, Daisy Jelley, Sandra Yi Sencindiver
Creators: Jessica Ruston and Holly Smale

Geek Girl is a likably wholesome, generally low-stakes YA fairy tale — references to Cinderella abound — that might even skew too young for the My Life with the Walter Boys audience, much less something like Euphoria. And much less an audience that watched House of the Dragon.

Though I come to Geek Girl from far outside of any of its core demos and probably would have gravitated toward something with a hair more edge, I appreciated the show’s fast-moving and poppy — heck, it even has a character named “Poppy” — sensibility, its warmth and the confidence of Carey’s central performance.

Following in the footsteps of similar disingenuously ugly-duckling protagonists in the Princess Diaries/She’s All That vein, Carey’s Harriet Manners is a self-described “geek,” which her frequent voiceovers define in a variety of semi-complimentary ways. She’s socially awkward and she has nerdy obsessions that make her a reliable source of conversational trivia. She also falls down constantly, at least in the pilot, because that’s what awkward girls do.

Although Harriet is picked on by the cool kids at her school, she has a devoted best friend in Rochelle Harrington’s Nat, an encouraging neighbor friend in Zac Looker’s amusingly odd Toby and loving parents in Tim Downie’s Richard and Jemima Rooper’s Annabel.

Harriet’s fashion class wins some strange contest to attend a London Fashion Week event — one of many things you don’t want to think about too hard — and, thanks to one of her many embarrassing exploits, Harriet captures the attention of superstar modeling agent Wilbur Evans (Emmanuel Imani).

See, while Harriet is a geeky ginger with no interest in modeling, limited interest in fashion and no clue how to proficiently walk in a casual sense much less on a runway, she’s “giving alien superstar vibes.” Suddenly, Wilbur is offering Harriet a dream opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s Nat’s dream, which will cause the sort of very, very temporary low-stakes conflict that Geek Girl specializes in.

Also causing low-stakes conflict? Harriet has attracted the curiosity of male-modeling superstar (or so the show tells us) Nick (Liam Woodrum), much to the chagrin of Nick’s staged social media girlfriend Poppy (Daisy Jelley), another aspiring model. Nick is referred to as being a teenager once, presumably because there’s something a little creepy about his putting the moves on a sheltered 16-year-old girl. That claim about his age isn’t convincing, but that’s definitely not a wrinkle Geek Girl wants to explore.

Harriet has to overcome the skepticism of Wilbur’s boss Jude (Sarah Parish), who’s supposed to make you think of Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, only she isn’t especially mean. That’s because nobody in Geek Girl is especially mean, other than Harriet’s primary school nemesis Lexi (Mia Jenkins) and even she’s soft by 2024 teen-bullying standards.

It all matches a version of the modeling world without alcohol or drugs or anything more sexual than occasional hand-holding. This is, as I’m trying to make clear, designed to be a softer show than what you would expect from Netflix or The CW or Freeform, all of which have previously done shows about young women thrust unexpectedly into the world of fashion.

What sets the series apart nicely is Harriet, who is demonstrably neurodivergent. She struggles with social cues and all manner of external stimuli. She calms herself with several behaviors that are instantly recognizable as “stimming,” if you recognize such things.

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“I’m not going to let you or anybody else define her by a label,” declares Richard, her protective, doting dad, when he and Wilbur share a moment of concern about Harriet being thrust into this environment. Accordingly, the show, created for TV by Smale and Jessica Ruston, is very cautious about labeling Harriet, much less actually using what the series The A Word referred to as, well, the a-word.

Is there a part of me that thinks Geek Girl would be more courageous to actually address Harriet within the context of autism? Perhaps? But I see Richard’s point as well. The show is about situating Harriet, a nexus of discomfort, within a world in which our perception is that everybody must be comfortable with how they look and present themselves. Explicitly diagnosing her would serve a purpose, but the show’s greater goal is giving her a discomfort that’s universal for most adolescents, however easy it is to break her specific code.

Bridgerton is actually doing something comparable — albeit with much more surrounding horniness — with the Francesca storyline this season. In the same evasively progressive vein, Wilbur — well-embodied by Imani as the most sanitized and kind cutthroat agent imaginable — has a hunky husband and speaks like his television diet is exclusively RuPaul’s Drag Race, even if nobody in this show has anything so spicy as a sexuality.

Carey plays Harriet in a holistically satisfying way that puts her difficulties and her coping strategies on an equal plane, especially when it comes to her close interactions with her friends and family — Looker, Harrington, Downie and Rooper are solid as well — which give the entire story a sweetness that builds to several effective emotional climaxes in the closing episodes.

Carey is very good at receding into the background when that’s Harriet’s preference and when the actor has to play that most familiar of genre tropes — the moments in which she emerges as a swan — Carey makes the scenes believable without ever making Harriet too much at ease.

I wish series director Declan O’Dwyer weren’t so enamored with those tropes. Geek Girl must have at least a half-dozen “Harriet enters a room in slo-mo so that we know she’s stunning!” moments, in at least three of them wearing the same fetching red dress. There are similarly repetitive aspects to the series’ visual grammar, like the way scenes in London and Ottawa keep going back to the same generic establishing shots.

Visual limitations aside, O’Dwyer keeps the series moving at a healthy pace — it helps that the events of the 10-episode first season appear to take place within a week — and the soapy mixture of comedy, muted drama and romance remains in decent balance.

At its best, Geek Girl sometimes made me think of Netflix’s exceptional and canceled-too-soon adaptation of The Baby-Sitter’s Club, which serves as a warning that if there’s an audience out there for this kind of well-meaning, albeit entirely familiar entertainment, they’d better tune in fast because Netflix has an itchy trigger finger.

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