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When Reality TV Turns Trends Into Content

When a movie or show blows up, television’s reality sector has always been more than happy to go coattail-riding—and two years after the huge success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ Netflix and HBO Max have debuted ‘Bling Empire’ and ‘House of Ho’

Netflix/HBO Max/Ringer illustration

It’s not uncommon for unscripted shows to ride the coattails of scripted success. Reality TV is cheaper to produce than investing in writers and sets for a full-fledged knockoff; besides, copyright claims are hard to make when the defendant’s “characters” are real people. Bravo’s Real Housewives, the MCU of the nouveau riche, has now outlived Desperate Housewives, its indirect namesake and obvious inspiration. NYC Prep, a faultier execution of the same network strategy, tried to channel Gossip Girl fever in 2009. Sometimes, the link isn’t even implicit; MTV announced its intentions for 2004’s Laguna Beach by slapping on the subtitle “The Real Orange County,” meaning the teen soap as much as the physical location.

Even by these standards, though, the clumsily named Bling Empire is a brazen lift. Netflix’s latest reality stunt features extravagant wealth in Los Angeles, making it a fitting follow-up to the slow-rolling success of Selling Sunset. But the possessors of said wealth, an eclectic group that varies by age, ethnicity, and vocation, have one thing in common: They’re all Asian or Asian American, a broad category that, on the show, ranges from glamorous expats to adoptees. Rich? Check. Asian? Check. All that’s missing is “crazy,” a word that I find insensitive but will surely come up on social media as Bling Empire’s fireworks trickle down into screenshots and GIFs. There are already headlines about penis pumps.

Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel turned smash-hit blockbuster in 2018, is already due for a cinematic sequel. But two years and counting is a long time to wait. While the actual franchise navigates pay disputes, story issues, and the ongoing production crisis that is the global pandemic, Jeff Jenkins Productions, an offshoot of the legendary reality firm Bunim/Murray, is all too happy to fill the void. Hence this portrait of the real-life social set that first inspired Kwan’s writing, a full-circle moment that’s also a stopgap. Even the poster fonts look the same.

Beyond subject matter, the parallels extend to Bling Empire’s framing device. Where Crazy Rich Asians has Rachel Chu, a middle-class academic who acts as an audience surrogate as she dives into her fiancé’s jet-setting world, Bling Empire has Kevin Kreider, a West Hollywood model with a mere four figures in his bank account. (This is a reality show, where “a West Hollywood model” is as close as you’ll get to an everyman.) Born in Korea but adopted by white American parents, Kevin moved to L.A. in part to explore his Asian identity. He’s chosen to do this not by exploring the city’s dense and thriving hub of Korean culture, but by hanging out with the kind of people who throw mouth massage parties at their Beverly Hills estates.

These people, of course, are the real reason we’re here. Kane Lim, a Singaporean real estate heir, is Kevin’s introduction to the group and the most eager to take on the duties of a professional reality star. (If you’re not willing to needle your friend’s live-in boyfriend with gossip about their sex life on camera, why bother showing up?) Other stars include Kelly Mi Li, a young divorcée whose ex-husband was a white-collar criminal and whose current boyfriend played the Red Power Ranger; Kim Lee, a DJ hyped as the “Calvin Harris of Asia”; and Cherie Chan, a denim heiress and recovering J-pop star coping with the recent death of her mother while she prepares for the birth of her second child.

The Bling Empire cast includes a host of tertiary characters who largely exist to stir up drama and marvel at rents that are “only” $19,000 a month. (Cherie’s live-in boyfriend, Jessy, works in furniture; Kim’s friend Guy Tang is billed as a “celebrity hairstylist.”) But its two centers of gravity are both older and more classically glamorous than the rest of the cast. Socialite Christine Chiu is married to a plastic surgeon whose family can supposedly trace its roots back to China’s Song dynasty; it took her and her husband a decade to have their first kid, whom she spoils accordingly. Anna Shay, a Russian and Japanese arms heiress—arms heiress!—is framed as a reclusive, eccentric Miss Havisham type who’s just emerging from self-imposed isolation.

In theory, Christine and Anna’s rivalry is the driving force of Bling Empire’s first season. In practice, it reveals how clunky and inorganic the setup truly is. As a viewer, you simply do not buy that a glitzy philanthropist like Chiu, who we first meet talking to a Town & Country reporter, would deign to rub elbows with a disc jockey, or that Shay—who’s decades older than any of her costars and assumes a sort of kooky aunt role—would consort with anyone else at all. Shay has a bizarre, sleepy affect that’s not a great fit for reality pyrotechnics, and while she enables excellent one-liners like “Anna goes to Paris more times a year than she goes to Silver Lake,” she’s almost too weird to fit neatly into a template as firmly set as what The New York Times Iva Dixit recently termed the Rich Wife Reality TV Show. (Shay has been divorced four times, but the shoe still fits.)

Bling Empire’s lack of cohesion is a common issue in reality series without a hook as clear as a workplace, à la Selling Sunset or Vanderpump Rules, or a family like the Kardashians. In this respect and many others, Bling Empire makes for a telling contrast with another recent attempt to capitalize on the Crazy Rich Asians phenomenon: House of Ho, the HBO Max series centered on the namesake Vietnamese American family in Houston. House of Ho is more streamlined than Bling Empire, both in basic concept and cultural focus. “Wealthy second-generation immigrants working through the cultural hangover of communism” is a much more unified theme than “a bunch of rich people who come from somewhere on the largest continent on Earth hang out and start drama.”

On the other hand, House of Ho can be so compelling as sociology it loses some of its charm as brainless reality TV. The women of the Ho family, especially daughter Judy and her sister-in-law, Lesley, are blatantly mistreated in favor of spoiled playboy Washington, who gets all the favoritism from his parents while doing none of the work. Such embedded misogyny can be hard to watch; that’s much less the case on Bling Empire, which feels more artificial and therefore lower stakes. The season-long conflicts amount to a petty-off between Chiu and Shay—in a master stroke, Shay invites her nemesis over for drinks only to bait and switch the overdressed Chiu with some yoga—and a love triangle between Kreider, Mi Li, and the Power Ranger. None of it is terribly convincing, but it’s far easier on the soul.

That’s because Bling Empire blends smoothly into the landscape of late-stage reality TV, where volume and self-awareness combine to crank out concepts rooted in other media as much as real life. Selling Sunset itself is a work of unscripted-on-unscripted sourcing, building on the mass appeal of real estate porn as seen on Million Dollar Listing or HGTV; The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City can feel like a parody of its own predecessors, filled with players like Brooks Marks who are clear students of the form. The point of Bling Empire isn’t necessarily to capture a flesh-and-blood demographic. It’s to replicate a heightened and fictionalized story that may be based on a flesh-and-blood demographic, but adds its own colorful spin.

So does Bling Empire succeed in re-creating the appeal of Crazy Rich Asians? If the bar is density of brand names, sure; midway through the season, Kevin receives a makeover that largely amounts to pointing at his own shirt and shouting, “It’s Dior!” But both the movie and Kwan’s novel are about a very specific social set: Chinese emigrées who became titans of industry in Singapore over a century ago, setting their descendants up for a life of leisure. Bling Empire doesn’t make the case that anything so tangible is going on in contemporary L.A. Instead, its ensemble is the product of another, more recent shift: the rise of the reality industrial complex, ready to turn trends into content. There, at least, Bling Empire fits right in.