Reality television is meant to be the intersection between the real world and the escapism of fiction. Shows like “Bling Empire,” however, blur that line greatly, almost being fantastical enough to be considered fiction. Although it is set in a real location featuring real people without scripted dialogue, the reality that these people live is so outside the realm of possibility that it may very well be set in Narnia or Hogwarts. The Netflix show capitalizes off of the popularity of 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” by following extremely wealthy Asians living in Hollywood. “Bling Empire,” however, is more similar to “Keeping up with the Kardashians” than it is to the movie as it focuses on the glitzy parties and exorbitantly priced designer wear of the vapid cast. Worse yet, some of the show’s “problems” are seemingly copy-and-pasted from sitcoms and, similarly, follow problematic tropes in the same way that sitcoms do.
Take the token poor guy of the show, model Kevin Kreider, a 37 year old that has found himself in the midst of millionaires. It’s rare that one episode finishes without Kevin expressing amazement at the cavalier attitudes of his rich friends, like Kane Lim or Anna Shay, both of whom dole out expensive designer gifts or treat him to extravagant lunches. Kevin has an interesting story; unlike his friends, he was adopted by a Caucasian family and raised in middle class Pennsylvania, far away from the glamour of Hong Kong or Los Angeles. Despite the possibility for the show to explore Kevin’s search for his birth parents further or even the disparities between his own experiences and that of his socialite circle, most of his scenes are centered around his infatuation with Kelly Mi Li, a beautiful former real estate developer and tech investor.
Kelly’s own arc revolves around her unhealthy relationship with Andrew Gray (“Power Rangers Megaforce”), their couples therapy session and her attempts to heal from the damaging fights that she and Andrew frequently have. Again, the show could do well in developing this storyline. It would be incredibly more interesting to see Kelly escape from the toxic grasps of this long-term relationship to better herself and go on a self-help journey (complete with the popular Los Angeles retreats or gurus) or even see the couple get closer and rise from these patterns with the use of therapy.
Instead, the audience is forced to see Kevin pursue Kelly while she’s in a relationship and during the brief period she is single. It’s nauseating to see Kevin insist that he is the “nice guy” that Kelly deserves, the supposed sweet Midwestern boy that is in contrast to her terrible actor boyfriend. Reality television thrives off of being an enhanced version of reality, but this storyline arc reads like a bad scene with bad actors considering Kevin is ill suited to play the “nice guy.” He’s a model with celebrity friends! Furthermore, he speaks about tricking women into sleeping with him by making pancakes and offering to “just” cuddle.
This sitcom trope — the nice outcast trying to start a relationship with the popular girl with the mean boyfriend — is seen throughout teen shows like “Riverdale,” and that’s where it should stay. It should not infiltrate reality television because the show ends up looking tone deaf. It’s impossible to believe Kevin’s claims that he is only looking out for Kelly’s best interests when he is so obviously sexualizing her. He is not encouraging her to seek individual therapy to help herself, instead, offering to replace one abusive boyfriend with another.
If “Bling Empire” is to remain relevant or entertaining, it needs to decide what it wants to do: it can either delve into the vapidity of Hollywood, like the Kardashians have decided, or fully commit to their more serious plot lines, like the search for Kevin’s birth parents and the positions of wealthy minorities in white culture. This limbo that it currently exists in does nothing for the value of the show. It only makes it a weird hybrid between reality and fantasy. The caricatures of their real selves will only harm their reputation and shows if they continue.