You may be too old to have heard about social media stars/influencers like Chase "Lil Huddy" Hudson, Charli D'Amelio, and Nikita Dragun, but perhaps you've heard about their California collective known as Hype House. …Okay, you may not have heard about Hype House, but you've heard of TikTok? …Okay, you have a phone, though, right?
The new Netflix series Hype House is destined for an audience that will have no way to fully grasp the significance of its stars, and that's okay, because Hype House and its content-creating inhabitants are best viewed from a distance. The Gen-Z audience that made these children very popular and very rich will probably not be watching. When the drama of a reality TV show has already played out months ago across multiple social media platforms, the documentary version can't help but come across as stale, but that's only if you're aware of this community in the first place. Those approaching Hype House as if they're investigating a new species of life on this planet (which in many ways they are) will probably get the most out of it. Whether what they get is fascination or horror may be in the eye of the beholder.
The creation of the Hype House at the center of this eight-part docuseries made some news at the end of 2019, if for no other reason than it was a distillation of the bizarre and unknowable Gen Z entertainment ethos. For years, vloggers, Instagram influencers, and other denizens of the social media ecosystem had been amassing huge followings and racking up sponsorships into the millions of dollars for their amorphous "content." That this content often amounted to little more than direct-to-camera video diaries, sponsored product unboxings, makeup tutorials, and lip-syncing tended to flummox outside observers, even more so when the Zoomers seemingly abandoned movies and TV altogether in favor of watching each other make videos for YouTube or TikTok. And so the news that a bunch of teenagers and twentysomethings all decided to move into a mansion in Los Angeles where they could collaborate and amass sponsorships and influence and further mesmerise their Gen Z cohorts was an easy object for rubbernecking.
Now, more than two years after the founding of the Hype House comes this Netflix series, a delay which has more than a bit of the whiff of "how do you do, fellow kids?" to it. It takes a Boomer a long time to climb the hill up to Hype House's gated location. The obscenity of just how fancy this house is serves as one of the series' introductory jolts. The next one is when each of the docuseries' cast members are introduced by a chyron with their name and how many online followers they have, with most of the counts ranging in the tens of millions. You could be watching Hype House for a while and still never get past the central question: Why are these kids so popular?
Some possible explanations emerge, but they're fleeting. Is it because they're young and cute? Certainly that applies to most of them, in that "who were the cutest boys you knew in 10th grade" kind of way. Is it because they're giving young people the kind of representation they're not getting elsewhere? Certainly that applies to Nikita Dragun, whose success as a trangender beauty brand-maker has got to be inspiring in a way trans youth didn't have access to a decade or more ago. Is it because they're especially creative and talented? Jury's still out on that, but ask anyone who's lost an hour to scrolling TikTok and they'll tell you the way some of those videos are edited takes quite a bit of talent. But of course a big part of the success of vloggers and TikTokkers as a community — especially among their A-Listers — is the prospect of following interpersonal drama as it unfolds before their eyes.
Hype House alludes to some of this drama as being foundational to the popularity of its founders. Chase Hudson (18 years old, 31.6 million followers), who makes music as "Lil Huddy," got famous in part due to his teenage romance with fellow TikTokker Charli D'Amelio, a relationship whose on/off status at the time of filming appears to be in a bit of doubt, although both Chase and Charli don't say much.
Chase is at the center of the most compelling storyline in Hype House, as he and founder Thomas Petrou (22, 8.1m followers) are experiencing a kind of soft falling out after Chase decided to leave Hype House proper and move into a mansion in Encino. The root of much of the tension running through Hype House, especially when it comes to Thomas, who is clearly the most business-minded of the collective, comes down to who is and who isn't creating sufficient content to keep the Hype House engine running. The rent gets paid by sponsorships, and the sponsors are paying for clicks and eyeballs and likes and followers, and that's all generated by content. What kind of "content"? That can range from Nikita (25, 14m followers) painting her face, to fresh-faced Vinnie (18, 12m followers) fighting a sumo wrestler in a quasi Jackass moment, to Alex (20, 16.7m followers) surprising his girlfriend Kouvr (20, 13.5m followers) with a playful baby fox. There are moments when Thomas is talking about content creating where the whole enterprise does start to seem like a sweatshop with ring lights, the creators rolling out of bed and clanging out a few more pieces of video in order to satisfy the masses and keep them living in mansions and fast cars. The show also touches on other aspects that suggests the life of an influencer is harder than it seems, like when Alex and Kouvr are shown struggling with the complications of carrying out a relationship on social media.
Then there are the controversies, one of which you may have already heard about, back during the early months of the pandemic when a bunch of popular TikTokkers got in trouble for attending a maskless rager of a birthday party. The backlash was severe from the media, and perhaps more crucially from other influencers who took the revelers to task for being irresponsible and setting a bad example for their followers. That birthday party was for Larray (22, 24.3m followers), thrown by Nikita, and its fallout makes for one of the season's big stories.
Again, if you already follow these people, you've heard this story by now, but if you already follow these people, Hype House isn't going to offer you much of anything you don't know, since the whole point of this entire genre of Zoomer celebrity is that they talk about everything on their own platforms. Only Chase seems to be harboring more than he lets on in photo shoots and social media posts, but that's likely also the brand Chase is cultivating. There's pretty much zero chance that Hype House will give you anything more than the meticulously branded content that the Hype House denizens are crafting. When you're dealing with people who were seemingly raised to perform on camera, a series like this seems incapable of peeling back any layers they haven't already revealed. The end result makes Hype House little more than an addendum to the real deal, but if you're an Old and/or you're not interested in navigating your way though the dozens of accounts and platforms you'd need to juggle to follow these people's lives in real time, the Netflix series serves as a kind of Readers Digest version. Olds love Readers Digest, and Hype House will certainly make you feel like an Old.
Hype House premieres on Netflix Friday January 7th.
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.