Reconfigure “Pygmalion” and its musical descendant “My Fair Lady” for the age of Facebook and Twitter, and the result is “Selfie.”
The main characters are even named Eliza and Henry in the ABC sitcom premiering Tuesday (Sept. 30). Instead of giving compulsive social media poster Eliza Dooley (think “Doolittle”) lessons in proper English, Henry Higenbottam (a la “Higgins”) is enlisted to help her relate to the real world at least as much as to cyberspace.
Developed by Emily Kapnek (“Suburgatory”), “Selfie” stars Scottish actress Karen Gillan — who played Amy Pond on “Doctor Who” — as Eliza, and John Cho (of the “Harold & Kumar” and most recent “Star Trek” movies) as Henry.
“We started off talking about relationship shows and potential romantic comedies,” Kapnek told reporters, “what the modern obstacles are, and sort of the presence of technology in relationships … the ever-present phone and laptops and tablets at dinner tables and bedrooms and every sort of occasion.
“And we realized that in telling a story where that is an obstacle and someone [is] sort of trying to wean themselves [off it], there was inherently a ‘Pygmalion’ sort of aspect. We sort of embraced it and kind of went into it, but it didn’t start off from a place of, ‘Let’s tell a modern version of “My Fair Lady” or “Pygmalion.” ‘ “
Gillan became social media-conscious upon learning she was “being talked about on it,” she recalls. “Then I realized you should probably never Google yourself, so that became a rule in my life. I did join Twitter while on ‘Doctor Who.’ It was very exciting.”
Relating strongly to filling the Henry Higgins slot on “Selfie,” Cho notes that character “was a linguistics expert, and I was thinking how as an immigrant, I kind of have that. When you’re not born in this country, you tend to study how the natives talk and a little bit like Gatsby or something. It doesn’t work when you look different, which is the lesson I learned later.”
While social media expectedly plays a big role in “Selfie” in the early going. Kapnek forecasts it won’t always be that way — but she admits knowing when to ease up on it is tricky.
“The idea is, obviously, this is [Eliza’s] sort of evolution and growth away from some of those devices, away from some of those habits,” the writer-producer says, “so maybe it starts to dwindle. But because this is sort of one of the main things she’s fighting against and one of her characteristics, we wanted to prop it up at just the right time with just the right degree of it. I mean, that’s a balance we’re hoping to strike.”