LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
This episode contains a discussion of domestic abuse.
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HOLMES: "Bling Empire" on Netflix is not an entirely new idea. Reality television has long had a fascination with some factions of the extremely rich for obvious reasons. They offer a kind of glamour. They spend a lot of time treating low-stakes problems like high-stakes problems. And when something goes wrong for these people, it knocks them down a peg in a way that can be satisfying. "Bling Empire" shifts the focus a little to a group of Asian Americans in and around Los Angeles. They throw parties. They date. They deal with their families. And of course, they wear a lot of fabulous clothes.
I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "Bling Empire" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us from his home in Los Angeles is Tobin Low, an editor at This American Life. Hello, Tobin.
TOBIN LOW, BYLINE: Hello.
HOLMES: And also joining us from her home in Maryland is writer Kat Chow. Her memoir "Seeing Ghosts" is available for preorder right now. Hello, Kat.
KAT CHOW: Hello, hello.
HOLMES: And also with us here from D.C. is Mallory Yu, a movies editor for All Things Considered. Hi, Mallory.
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hey.
HOLMES: I'm so excited to have you all here because we sent out the signal - is anyone watching "Bling Empire"? And I was so excited when you all said that you were watching "Bling Empire."
HOLMES: It is executive produced, among others, by Jeff Jenkins, who also worked on a little show called "Keeping Up With The Kardashians." It shares a lot of that DNA. But, of course, rather than being about one family, it's kind of about a social group. It's more Real Housewives-ish in that way. The major players - there are a bunch of them, but they include Anna Shay, who's a kind of legendary and somewhat private heiress whose father made a lot of money in weapons; a woman named Christine who wants to become what Anna is and never will - that's just my opinion - and a model named Kevin, who isn't as rich but he gets to hang out with rich people.
Kevin talks early on about "Crazy Rich Asians," and it's clear that part of the impetus for this show at this time is exactly the influence of that book and film series. Kat, you and I've talked from time to time about "Crazy Rich Asians." How did you receive "Bling Empire" upon Netflix?
CHOW: (Laughter) So, first of all, so many mixed feelings, like all of us here today, I'm sure. But I must just put out a disclaimer that I don't really watch reality TV shows, but I can be convinced. For example, this past summer, I watched every single season of "Selling Sunset" in the span of four days when I was on deadline for my book. As a result, I watched a couple of seasons of "Dancing With The Stars" because Chrishell was on it.
CHOW: So that's sort of the depths I will go to watch reality TV once I am hooked in. But, like, I feel very resentful. So I think the spot you find me in right now is I have, again, so many mixed feelings, but perhaps one of the things that sort of encompasses or I have a very strong reaction to is a quote, actually, from the creator of "Empire Park." And I just want to read it. Jeff Jenkins said, "the biggest hurdle in documentary reality television is that, culturally, Asian Americans or Asians in general are very private. They hold their cards close to the chest and don't share a lot of emotions, and I think they honor and respect privacy."
First of all, I have a lot of emotions about that.
CHOW: I'm sure we will get into this, but I just feel that that type of argument in general is used in so many ways throughout Asian American history. And Asian American, as a word, is just such a broad demographic. It's such a broad term. Like, what does it really mean?
CHOW: There's a lot of writing on this. And I think that is just a summation of one of the problems. It's not that Asian Americans broadly were afraid to speak up or share emotions; it's just that people became less racist or treated them better. And I think that was the framing that I had and realized and have come to when I see the discussions around this show, where it's not like this is just showing Asian Americans have arrived. So that's the interesting starting point, I guess, for me.
HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I - whenever I read a quote like that, I always think, like, people aren't necessarily not into showing their emotions just because they're not sharing their emotions with you.
HOLMES: Like, that's not necessarily a safe assumption. Mallory, what'd you think?
YU: I mean, like Kat, I will say I don't really watch a lot of reality TV, but I can be convinced. And I will admit that I was convinced once I started seeing GIFs of Kevin pop up on my Twitter feed. He's just really attractive. The show is full of really attractive people. And you know what? That's where my brain is right now. More seriously, I was interested in tuning in because it still feels like a novelty. And more cynically, it's like - it's an entire show of Asians; what is it going to show about, quote-unquote, "my people"?
YU: It's compelling TV in the sense that we have compelling characters. Anna Shay, who you mentioned, taking a sledgehammer to a wall in her walk-in closet while wearing a ball gown - amazing. In it right away.
HOLMES: Yeah. It's how you meet her, yeah.
YU: I also liked that it did portray issues - or characters dealing with issues like infertility and adoption or, you know, in the case of Cherie, she's an unwed mother who's also, you know, trying to stay true to her cultural traditions, which value marriage. And so I liked kind of seeing a little bit of that tension. But the show and its relationships, for me, don't necessarily feel organic in a way that allowed me to get fully sucked into the world of the show...
YU: ...Because it's hard to delight in the mess when you know that the only reason this meeting is happening is because the producers have set it up. So it was hard for me to kind of dismiss that thought. It just kept popping up - like, why is Kevin here?
YU: Why are these people even hanging out with him? And I don't think he even knows, really.
HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.
YU: I will also say that it was hard for me to watch sort of the excesses of these wealthy people in 2020. You know, I know this was filmed in 2019, so it was before the pandemic and before, you know, this, you know, huge economic downturn that we've experienced. But the disparity between the haves and the have-nots right now is so stark, and it's hard to really appreciate sort of the wealth and excess that we see on the show while also holding the economic reality of our time in the same space.
HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah. Tobin, I'm seeing a lot of - people at home can't see this, but I'm seeing a lot of nodding from you while Mallory and Kat have been presenting opening thoughts.
HOLMES: What are your opening thoughts?
LOW: When I first watched this show, I was mixed on it in that I had it on in the background, and it was a totally inoffensive watch the first time through because it leans on so many reality TV tropes. It's not very original in that sense. But the more time went by - I think, actually, I'll jump off of things both of you said as the things that really bothered me.
So if we're talking about what Mallory is pointing out, with the excessive wealth - you know, this is not new to reality TV. We're used to seeing the "Real Housewives" flaunt money and expensive things. But I think kind of what saves them is that it's a little bit about keeping up with the Joneses with them, right? Like, none of them tend to be actually uber rich. They all want to be uber rich. And so the tension of who's pretending, who actually has it, who doesn't - that is sort of what makes the money kind of interesting and kind of excusable. In "Bling Empire," these people are actually uber rich.
LOW: Some of them are actually blindingly rich. And so it's, like, for that reason, ethically, a little dubious, also less interesting, also just - why am I watching this?
HOLMES: Yeah, totally.
LOW: So that's, like, one thing I felt about the money part of it. And then just to jump off the quote that Kat shared - like, the thing that makes me laugh about that or roll my eyes is statements like that are both so cynical and inexact in a way that is annoying...
LOW: ...Because clearly this person is capitalizing on this idea of, like, oh, there's not enough Asian American representation, so, like, we're bringing it with the show, but you're using Asian American to point to East Asians who are incredibly rich, which is the tiniest slice.
HOLMES: Right. Right, right, right.
LOW: So there's, like, something cynical going on and something totally broad-strokes annoying going on. So I think those two things that you all are mentioning are why my estimation of the show totally deteriorated the more I thought about it.
HOLMES: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And I think one of the things that I thought was strange about it is also that - you know, Mallory mentioned that, you know, it touches on things like infertility and adoption, which I think are very - they're interesting points, but it's odd to see them interspersed among these - as I was saying in the intro, the tendency of shows like this to also show you a lot of people treating small-potatoes things like big deals because they just don't have that many actual problems.
You know, the most uncomfortable thing for me - and I've talked to a couple people who shared this sense. So there is a woman named Kelly who has a boyfriend named Andrew. And Andrew is an actor, and he's introduced a sort of like - you know, that they have this love story and that she feels like she's found this guy that she really cares about. And in the first episode - the story on the show is - Anna Shay, wildly wealthy weapons heiress, takes Kelly and Andrew on a trip to Paris. And so while they're in Paris, Kelly and Anna go shopping. And there's a moment when Kelly gets a call from Andrew. I want to play a little bit of that phone call.
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KELLY MI LI: Jet lag sucks, so when Anna asked me to go shopping with her, I thought I was doing Andrew a favor by letting him sleep. But I was wrong.
ANDREW GRAY: I would never - would you want me to do that to you? Yes or no?
MI LI: I don't - like, the things that you...
GRAY: Yes or no? I don't want to hear anything but yes or no.
MI LI: I wouldn't care.
GRAY: Yes or no? Keep it simple.
HOLMES: Yeah. So as I said, grain of salt in the sense that you never know what's being kind of brought out and not. But the show - you know, what the show is presenting there is a pretty textbook abusive partner.
HOLMES: Very controlling - screaming, yelling. This goes on. And he turns into - again, as presented by the show, turns into very much this, you know, then the kind of - well, you know, I don't understand why you're still upset about this. We've turned the page on this. This is all over now.
And it's very upsetting to me. I found watching that relationship extremely uncomfortable. And the irony is that is sort of the stuff that feels the most potentially substantive, but it doesn't seem at home next to - for example, I want to listen to a little bit more tape. This is kind of the part of the show that I thought was sort of fun.
The first thing that happens is this woman, Christine, who we mentioned in the opening who kind of aspires to an Anna Shay level of status - right? - the kind of status that Anna has. And so she decides that she's going to go to this party that Anna Shay is throwing, and she's going to wear this necklace essentially to rub it in her face. Like, you think you're the one who owns these special, high-end pieces of jewelry, and I'm going to show you that you're wrong, right? She goes to the party in the necklace. This is all very silly, but that's the point, right?
HOLMES: She gets to the party in the necklace. She is undone by a rearrangement of the seating, which once Anna sees her in the necklace, she sort of seats her right at the edge of the tent, like practically outside, because of this, like, petty maneuver. And sometime later, Christine goes and tries to confront Anna about this seating arrangement thing. I want to play a little bit of this conversation tape.
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ANNA SHAY: The reason I sat you there was because my best friend was on that side.
CHRISTINE CHIU: Who I really enjoyed, Gloria (ph).
SHAY: Did you understand? She speaks Spanish. You speak Spanish?
SHAY: I did move her seat where she couldn't annoy anybody. I wouldn't admit it to her only because I'm not going to give Christine the satisfaction. I know Christine wants a fight, but I'm not going there. I'm not playing the game.
HOLMES: See, this is what I'm here for with this kind of show is this completely petty and basically harmless, like, back-and-forth between rich people about who wore what jewelry, who sat at what table and just this sublime cutting out at the knees of Christine coming over and being like, well, you know, I was surprised that you sat me, you know, so far away. This is the stuff that I'm here for with this kind of show. And it's so weird that it sits up against that business with the boyfriend.
CHOW: Yeah. Linda, I'm really glad that you brought up this kind of strange juxtaposition between, for example, Christine and Anna, which feels very kind of textbook reality TV show, sort of like over-the-top drama sort of over nothing. But also, I'm really glad that you brought up, too, the relationship between Kelly and Drew, where as it's portrayed on the show seems, you know, to appear as abusive. And again, we don't know how the show was edited and other details along those lines, but there was a definite discomfort that I felt when watching. And I think that the show - in my eyes, I really craved them grappling with that specific dynamic a little bit more.
YU: Yeah. I mean, I was pretty disturbed, I think as most people were, by the way that this relationship was portrayed. Sometime after their trip to Paris, Kelly and Andrew have a conversation in a music studio where Andrew is working. And they're rehashing that previous fight. And Kelly is explaining her - she's explaining the way that she feels. And Andrew asks her something like, do you even love me? Do you love me? And it just - that conversation, the way he kept turning it back on her and the way that he kept turning her feelings and using them against her, really, it made my heart start beating really fast and my hands started shaking because I have been asked those questions. I have been asked that question before when I was expressing my concerns about a relationship.
I really liked Kelly, but those segments were really alarming for me to watch. And for the show, I think, to call this relationship toxic both shows me that they understand that something is wrong but also sort of lightens or dismisses the fact that these conversations feel very abusive and reflect that reality for people. It felt like there was a sense of, well, there's no physical abuse, and so it is not abuse.
LOW: Yeah. I think there's also some harm done in how they treat the therapy and the aftermath of this - sort of these confrontations that they show because, you know, obviously, as Kat was saying, we're not seeing the whole journey. We don't know the whole story. But the show is certainly presenting their problems as something that you can address in a sort of genial couples therapy session and also says that both of them need to go to therapy separately. They both have issues to work on.
And there's something sort of gaslighting about that. Like, yes, maybe they both have things they need to work on, but this is not the same thing as, you know, we're getting in disagreements a lot; let's go to couples therapy and sort of generally talk about our patterns. You know, like, there's something so glaring here, and it's like putting a Band-Aid on it. I thought a lot about the harm that's done in presenting the problems that way, too - like, what happens after.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I - the thing that's so funny about it - and this is why I wanted to also talk about that weird exchange between Anna and Christine - is that that's sort of what I think - when people have talked about enjoying this show, at least for me, that's what they're talking about. They're talking about these kind of wacky confrontations over nothing.
There have definitely been, like, "Real Housewives" installments that have had real things that were also upsetting to look at. But this is, to me, a kind of an escalation of the contrast between wanting to be serious, or at least inadvertently being serious, and being frivolous. And I wondered whether you think - you know, Kat, you and I have talked a bunch of times about the Jenny Yang concept of rep sweats and stuff like that...
CHOW: Mmm hmm. Yeah.
HOLMES: ...Which is sort of the idea that when you see representation of a community that you're part of, you feel like it needs to be good, it needs to be respectful of the community and make people not get sort of the wrong idea. I wondered whether they got into more of this, like, serious stuff because somehow they felt like, if you're doing a show that, like, is representation, it should somehow be more serious. Know what I mean?
CHOW: Yeah, I was kind of wondering that, too, for "House Of Ho." I'm not sure if any of you have watched part of it or...
HOLMES: HBO Max, right?
CHOW: Yeah, HBO Max, "House Of Ho." I've only watched a few episodes. It's about a Vietnamese American family in Houston. And this to me feels like a documentary instead of a reality TV show about a wealthy Texas refugee family because there are just so many sort of more sinister themes about the patriarchal structure of this particular really rich family. And there is the oldest son named Washington who feels very much like a villain, but doesn't really seem as though he's trying. And there's not much joy in that show. And it's hard for me to watch "Bling Empire" without thinking about "House Of Ho" and these very real, serious elements. And it makes me wish that they had been grappled with in a different form.
YU: I suppose - I've been thinking about this like, is this good rep or bad rep? Because there's a part of me that wants to move on from the conversation about - solely about representation. Like, just seeing Asian faces is not enough.
YU: I mean, yeah, I want to be in a place where a show about the messy lives of crazy rich Asians isn't special just because it's about Asians, if that makes sense. Because, you know, Asians and Asian Americans can have messy and dramatic lives, too. One thing that I found really interesting about this show with this question is not necessarily the question of whether Asian Americans were represented on the screen, but whether they were represented behind the screen, behind the cameras.
HOLMES: Mmm hmm.
YU: You know, the show has a Filipino American showrunner. Jenkins has talked about how he installed Asian heads at every level of development, so from the camera crew to post-production, sound mixing, everything. And, you know, obviously, I'm taking that with a grain of salt, but that struck me as being pretty remarkable. Like, that is what I want to see.
You know, this show about crazy rich Asians doesn't represent me, but it does have a tangible effect on Asian Americans or Asians who want to get into Hollywood and who want to be in the camera crew or want to be producers. And that experience, that kind of pulling up of Asian talent is what is important and remarkable to me. I don't really care, I guess, whether a reality TV show is going to represent me and my friends.
HOLMES: It's interesting that you say that. And I think that's going to be very much worth following if they bring this show back and if they make additional, you know, shows with other casts.
Let us know what you think about "Bling Empire." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh. You can tweet us - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much to all of you for being here to talk about "Bling Empire."
LOW: Thank you.
YU: You're welcome.
CHOW: Thank you. Could have talked about it forever.
HOLMES: I know.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow, when we are going to discuss some of the favorite films we saw at the Sundance Film Festival.
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