Netflix is proving to be a big hitter in the world of reality TV. Last year, it stole hearts with the dating series Love Is Blind and captured imaginations with the US version of the social media-based gameshow The Circle. The latest and most exciting addition to its roster is Bling Empire, a show that makes its luxury property reality series Selling Sunset look as if it were filmed on a very tight budget.
The displays of excess are outright obscene, global pandemic or not: a Gucci arcade-style claw machine at a child’s first birthday party, a wall featuring $300,000 (£220,000) worth of trainers, a spur-of-the-moment lunch trip to one heiress’s favourite restaurant – in Paris. One woman boasts that her husband is a direct descendant of the Song dynasty, clarifying “that if dynasties still existed in China”, he would be the son of an emperor. But don’t let the OTT flashiness fool you. Not all that glitters is TV gold, but Bling Empire looks likely to be.
The show follows a group of super-wealthy friends – people who appear to be friends in real life, as opposed to the usual setup of strangers brought together for our entertainment, like a band on The X Factor. It stars Kevin Kreider, a model who has just moved to Los Angeles and is taken under the wing of the city’s east Asian elite. There’s Kane Lim, the son of a Singaporean billionaire; Kim Lee, one of the biggest DJs in east Asia and wannabe queen bee and Christine Chiu, the wife of a Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon and mother to “Baby G’’, whose first birthday party casually set them back $1m.
Kreider serves as our “get a load of these guys” tour guide, balking at price tags with disbelief, but it has since been revealed that even he has a net worth of between $7m and $10m. Still, given how wealthy his peers are, it’s probably not a misrepresentation to present him as poor in comparison.
Bling Empire is the brainchild of Jeff Jenkins, who previously oversaw Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It doesn’t differ greatly from the spate of Bravo or E! reality shows that follow the super rich – reports from a few years ago confirm that Chiu had been “in the running” on several occasions to join the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills franchise as a cast member. But despite its similarly shallow premise, there is a touch more depth. With Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, HBO Max’s House of Ho and Bravo’s Family Karma, there has been an influx of diverse shows aiming to reach new audiences. Bling Empire is no different, providing fertile ground for exploration of identity and cultural traditions.Kevin Kreider in Bling Empire. Photograph: Netflix
The series brings the first all-Asian-American cast to a reality television format, following socialites from Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese backgrounds. This leads to interesting narrative arcs – dudebro Kreider was born in Korea, but adopted by a white middle class family as a baby and grew up in Philadelphia, where whiteness was the norm to which he aspired. Meanwhile, Lee has been estranged from her biological father since the age of eight, and makes the decision to reconnect with him. Kelly Mi Li is written as Kreider’s love interest, but it’s complicated: she’s dating Andrew Gray, an actor once best known for playing the red Power Ranger, who is very unpopular with the show’s fans because of how he treats her.
The show’s multigenerational approach sees a plethora of issues explored – infertility, surrogacy, childbirth outside marriage – through the lens of east Asian culture. But unlike the lacklustre Netflix series Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, there is enough petty sniping (as seen in the epic fallout that occurs when two women wear the same Louis Vuitton haute-joaillerie necklace to an event) to keep it pacy.
If none of that is enough to tempt you, watch it alone for its breakout star – the immediately iconic Anna Shay, an eccentric Beverly Hills socialite and daughter of a late billionaire entrepreneur. From her inexplicable displays of full-frontal nudity to her casual snipes at Chiu, she is anything but formulaic: you never know what to expect from her, which is not common in this genre. Shay is the perfect reality TV participant, dreamed up in a laboratory.
Between Love Is Blind, Selling Sunset and now the distinctively glamorous Bling Empire, Netflix is a frontrunner in the reality TV genre. If it is willing to implement and perfect the all-important reality TV reunion (a crucial component it has regularly eluded) it will surely dominate it.