Both the title and the first few minutes of the new ABC comedy “Selfie,” premiering Tuesday at 8 p.m., nearly ruin what could turn out to be a charming show. (The pilot is available online now through ABC’s website.)
The title is meant to be a shorthand explanation of the exasperating self-absorption of Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan, “Doctor Who”). She may exist in the real world, but Eliza, a successful pharmaceutical company sales rep, lives her life in a virtual one, obssessed with her number of “followers” on social media. She is a hot mess of narcissistic vapidity unconcerned with the feelings of others.
Following a nightmare humiliation at 36,000 feet — involving an icky episode that requires two airsickness bags and an unflattering wardrobe change — Eliza realizes she may need to change her ways when she discovers she only has “friends” not friends, #epiphany.
Enter Henry (John Cho, “Star Trek”), a marketing whiz at Eliza’s company who is justifiably irritated by her personality but who, in his condescending snobbery and cranky pontificating, can be equally tedious. “I find it rather easy not to form personal connections in a city that only values wireless connection,” says Henry, disgusted by his fellow elevator passengers’ desperate search for a cell signal.
So far, not so funny, with laughs and irritants in equal measure.
But as you may have intuited from their characters’ names, Henry will undoubtedly grow accustomed to Eliza’s face in this modern spin on George Bernard Shaw’s classic behavioral modification case study, “Pygmalion” (and its Broadway musical descendant, “My Fair Lady”). And viewers just might too, as Henry takes on the formidable reclamation project that is Eliza, and both characters deepen and become more human with mutual tutelage. The basic idea is he will make her sufferable, she will unstuff him, and we will all laugh along with them.
Of course if “Selfie” is going to last, the characters have to start at extreme places so the evolution can be gradual.
Fortunately, the tone starts to shift, soften, and gain stronger comic footing around the time Eliza starts getting a “make-under” from her twee hipster neighbor while the neighbor’s book club members play an absurd ukulele version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Additionally, almost all of the snarky skewering of the corporate environment of Henry and Eliza’s Big Pharma workplace radiates the same wonderfully acidic tone as “Better Off Ted.” (Eliza picks Henry to engineer her transformation beause he successfully rebranded a nasal spray that gave users “Satanic hallucinations.”) Interestingly, if you pay close attention, you’ll also notice an occasional, subtle rhyming in some of the dialogue that feels like a sweet tip of the cap to Lerner & Loewe.
It helps tremendously that both Cho and Gillan, adopting an American accent, are such strong performers, finding their characters from beat one. You may not like them much at first, but they have their characters’ essences down cold and exhibit great chemistry, particularly in the rapid-fire exchanges when Henry is guiding Eliza through the ins and outs of such things as asking other people “How are you?”
The concept of changing someone into who you want them to be is alluring and alarming in equal measure, and if “Selfie” gets it right, it will likely attract many real-life followers.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.