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Netflix's Bling Empire Is Your Next Reality TV Obsession

Escapist TV has rarely been this fun.
  • Kim Lee and Christine Chiu in Bling Empire (Netflix)
    Kim Lee and Christine Chiu in Bling Empire (Netflix)

    I knew I'd fallen in love with Bling Empire the moment I saw a penis pump being thrown out of the second-story window of a Beverly Hills mansion during a face-massage party. The new series from Netflix is the latest in reality TV's quest to explore and document the lives of every single kind of rich person living in Los Angeles. Bravo and E! have been at the forefront of this endeavor, scoring big with various Real Housewives and Kardashian spinoffs and shows like Shahs of Sunset. Seemingly every possible profession (plastic surgeons, trainers, bartenders), ethnic demographic, and celebrity status level has been given the glossy reality treatment. Recently Netflix has been getting in on the game as well with Selling Sunset, a show that combines the tried-and-true real estate porn genre with the Hills-esque intrigue of a gaggle of striving realtors looking to backstab and side-eye each other to fame and fortune. Now with Bling Empire, Netflix might just have the next reality sensation.

    With a title-drop in its very first minute, Bling Empire makes it explicitly clear that it wants to be the reality TV version of Crazy Rich Asians, the 2013 novel turned 2018 film about a dynastically wealthy Singapore family and the enviable but intimidating cultural circles they move in. Except this series is set in the million-dollar homes of Los Angeles. Or at least, L.A. is the show's home base, with occasional jet-set stops in Paris or wherever. The social structure of this cloistered community is laid out by Kane Lim, the enthusiastically blingy son of a billion-dollar oil/shipping/real estate family, and (with one notable exception) the rest of the show's cast each have their own wealth tree from which they've sprung. Kelly's ex-husband was indicted for running a massive cyber fraud, and now she's in a volatile relationship with actor Andrew Gray. Fashion influencer Jamie Xie's family has enough Silicon Valley money that her horses fly on Emirates. Bratty but beguiling Kim Lee is a DJ whom Kane calls "Asia's Calvin Harris." The outlier among the twentysomethings is Kevin Kreider, a dumb/hot model whose adopted parents didn't provide him with a lavish upbringing and whose status as an outsider is frequently called upon to ground the show in some kind of reality (which rarely works and isn't really needed).

    One of the charms of Bling Empire is that the cast spans generations, kind of like if The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Vanderpump Rules merged into one. And things really take off when the show introduces Anna Shay, who we first see dressed in a ball gown and taking a sledgehammer to one of the many closets in her massive Beverly Hills mansion. Anna — half-Japanese, half-Russian, with family money rooted in the arms industry — is a heady contrast of extreme wealth, blunt delivery, and the glint of mischief essential to the best reality TV characters. She seems to almost play possum with the semi-spacey affect of a Sonja Morgan before becoming deadly precise in her reads of her social rivals, which comes in handy as she is pitted against the status-obsessed and hyper-competitive Christine Chiu. As Kane lays it out, Anna was something of a grande dame who became reclusive, while Christine ascended to Queen of Beverly Hills status. But now Anna is back, and their every interaction is fraught with this power struggle for social standing.

    These are the very basic ingredients of great reality TV drama, with Anna and Christine instantly indelible opposites. Christine is wildly unsubtle in her attempts to signify her wealth to Anna and given to insanely dramatic proclamations in her talking heads, like "In the world of high jewelry, not everyone is invited." Eat your heart out, 90% of all Real Housewives taglines. She's cheerfully desperate as she name-drops hotels and jewelers in her attempts to show Anna who's in charge, but she's also tenacious in the mold of the best reality personas. Anna, meanwhile, is instantly iconic, both unimpressed and devastatingly deadpan. She also seems to enjoy her grande dame status when it comes to the younger cast members, doling out advice and gifts but also spikily demanding respect. She's like if Lisa Vanderpump had more money, any chill, and no compunction at all about on-screen nudity (the freewheeling nudity in Bling Empire is among its many virtues).

    As with Selling Sunset, the pleasures of Bling Empire lie in its parallel tracks of escapism and also the wide-eyed delight that people this rich are this willing to make a show of themselves. Where the catty realtors of Sunset are out for blood, however, Bling Empire feels familial in its rivalries and bonds. Part of that is due to the multi-generational nature of the cast, part of it comes from their shared cultural bonds. Whatever the reason, it makes Bling Empire one of the more purely enjoyable entries in this (admittedly gaudy) genre in quite a while.

    Bling Empire drops on Netflix Friday January 15th.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Bling Empire, Netflix, Reality TV