Dirt: Bling Empire is a 19th-century novel

High-society reality show as comedy of manners.

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Watch: Bling Empire (Netflix). An essay by Clementine Ford on how reality TV can echo literary realism.

I like my reality shows chaotic, filled with outbursts and bad behavior, like eruptions over dinner tables at parties that feel only loosely architected by producers. Netflix’s Bling Empire is basically the opposite. It’s slickly produced and has lots of stilted dialogue, embodying an overall mode of artificiality that is reminiscent of Laguna Beach or The Hills, a style I was happy to leave behind in previous decades.

Following a group of wealthy Asian friends in Los Angeles, the show instantly reveals its careful construction through Kevin, who delivers the log-line in the first fifteen seconds: “When I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I thought it was a nice fantasy,” he says, “but… it’s real.” Penniless and from Philadelphia, Kevin is the naive newcomer to the group and it is in part through his sweetly awed eyes that lives are shaped into narrative. His role seems a clue to the show’s approach to representing the real world. Bling Empire provides the grand gawking-at-wealth tradition of reality television that Kevin promises: There are day trips to Paris, sports cars, and opulent baby photo shoots. But it also reminds me of the even grander, by which I mean older, tradition of the comedy of manners, a form that we know from Jane Austen and Edith Wharton novels, updated for the streaming era. 

Social hierarchies exist across reality television, but they are usually subjective, based on friendships and feuds, or who fans like and dislike — even on The Real Housewives, most money is created equal. But on Bling Empire, the pecking order is based on wealth and other more subtle distinctions in rank. First there is Anna, a half-Russian, half-Japanese weapons heiress from Singapore, the circle’s eccentric matriarch. Next in line is Christine, who married into the Chui family dynasty and once sat to the left of Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace; she is gauchely covetous of Anna, whom she persistently attempts to humiliate. Gracefully moving throughout the social circle is Kane, a young bachelor with family money in oil, also from Singapore, who, alongside the younger members of the group — including a DJ and a horse girl turned fashion aspirant — represents the next generation of this monied coterie. And then there is Kevin.

Kevin’s naiveté amuses his friends while also setting up satire for the viewer of the group’s overall adherence to etiquette. When lightly instructed to serve women at the table first — over shared plates at one of those nondescript, West Hollywood restaurants that are ubiquitous on reality TV — Kevin pleads modernity: “I believe in equality!” Ultimately, however, he does as he is told. At times, Kevin’s ingenuousness borders on the absurd; he is apparently unaware that you can’t return shoes after wearing them.

Kevin is part viewer stand-in and part parvenu, a common figure in the 19th century novel who suddenly comes into high society, like Lucien Chardon in Balzac’s Lost Illusions or Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black. Like his literary forebears, Kevin is new in town and bumbling, seeking social standing and money. Part of his journey towards acceptance is sartorial. Designer clothes are part of the show’s voyeuristic allure, but dress is a plot point for the milieu’s neophyte. When Anna tries to matchmake Kevin with Kelly, who is, in Kevin’s description, the epitome of social elegance, she purchases him a head-to-toe Dior outfit for his new role as suitor. Kelly, whose money comes from a disastrous first marriage to a high-level conman, has a boyfriend, Andrew, a relationship Anna doesn’t acknowledge. Changing into a black sheer sheath of some kind, tits out, Anna tells Kevin, that no, Kelly has no boyfriend. “Boytoy, maybe,” she says. “He’s not right for her.” (The real problem with Andrew, as Anna has observed, is that he is a complete psycho.)

Andrew is the villainous foil to Kevin. Both are misfits, but in Andrew’s case, this position is less about his background (he is Latino) or his money (he formerly played the red Power Ranger on television) than it is about his personality and perhaps his looks. After a confusing and creepy outburst jeopardizes his relationship with Kelly, and once he becomes aware of her friends’ misgivings about him, he refashions himself. The transformation is from a pseudo-skater in sweatshirts and greasy locks to a L.A. Don Draper, with a classically gelled haircut, a trimmed if still rakish goatee, and polo shirts tucked into bright-green chinos. In the 19th-century novel, excess defines the parvenu’s style, and Andrew’s truly radical but unaddressed makeover echoes the doing-too-much of his literary predecessors and carries the same suggestion: He lacks authenticity. 

Both men share courting Kelly as a storyline, an equivalence of romantic and societal achievement that recalls Great Expectations and Pip’s longing for Estella as the prize for and symbol of the gentleman’s status. But Estella was chosen for Pip by Miss Havisham, whose proxy here would be the less deranged and less malevolent Anna, and it is Kevin, not Andrew, who is fashioned under her designs.  

Anna’s idiosyncrasies imbue both her character and thus the show with a literary quality. First of all, she has a “French Best Friend,” a man who was introduced as a jewelry salesman on Anna’s 24 hour trip to Paris, and who then, without explanation, continues the season in LA, as her live-in companion. Because she is so rich, she gets to do whatever she wants, to the point of donning an Air France flight attendant’s uniform and serving drinks to economy passengers. This is fun for her, as  Anna also identifies herself as a part of a long extinct leisure class — “My father never wanted me to work” — which may also account for her lack of involvement in the show’s declassé conflicts. 

Rarely stooping to do the dirty work of drama, which is how, on reality television, one earns one’s keep, Anna has her battles fought by the younger cast who recognize her as the group’s grand dame. When she does participate in such pettiness, she uses the passive aggressive tools of society, like moving someone’s seat to the back of the dinner table. Unlike the rest of the cast, she won’t discuss money or designers, a habit that she finds, at least in Christine, incredibly tiresome. In fact, if Anna is any way displeased, her attitude is lofty and languorous, one of exhaustion and annoyance. It's as if she glided from the drawing room of a different era, a time preserved chiefly in novels and the movies made from them, into Beverly Hills for a jaunt on a reality show.  

Kane also echoes classic novelistic tropes. From its outset the show implies, through Kevin’s role, the existence of a dominant perspective, embodied most thoroughly by Kane. (Anna is too wealthy to strictly adhere to any rules.) If Kevin, as ingenue and protagonist, mirrors the audience, Kane’s view is that of the established Bling Empire — a clique like the Bridgerton ton. While their friendship seems genuine, Kane is always amused by his protegee, giggling with a bite of meanness. Single and very social, Kane, like a less traditional Sillerton Jackson in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, is more invested in the goings on of his milieu than storylines of his own. Never at home, he circulates, making social calls for gossip, helping recap and recast events, all told through his arch sensibility, one that lightly mocks his friends and peers while carefully toeing the line of decorum, except when it comes to Kevin, whose intelligence Kane openly mocks. His is a confidence born of unquestionable belonging.

For a reality show to take narrative guidance from the beginnings of literary realism strikes me as maybe the oldest trick in the books. It’s playfully satisfying, even clever — at the very least, entertaining, in spite of its scriptedness. But I wonder if the show signals a shift in the genre. It can certainly be seen as a return to the stylized mode of The Hills

On that show, producers manufactured petty dramas, but in the case of Bling Empire, construction not only drives plot but also creates a society of subtle distinctions. Unscripted series, which intervene in reality to create narrative, may share the same intent of novelistic realism, to examine and give the impression of real life. Like Austen or Balzac, Bling Empire uses the very real strictures of class for its narrative. 

Tragedy almost always besets the parvenu plot, which presupposes an essential quality to social status that cannot be bought or learned. Kevin ends the season rejected by Kelly, despite the Dior, after a truly terrible salsa dancing date in which he behaves with characteristic ungainliness. We leave Kevin drawing closer to the rebellious Kim, who has the power of money but less in the way of social ease. Such a figure, in the novel, is often a harbinger of change.

Episode two of the show is titled “A Tale of Two Trusts,” a play on the title of Dickens’ novel set in the French Revolution. Yet there are no rumblings on Bling Empire of overthrowing the establishment. Kevin remains a fierce loyalist to his benefactress, and the social monarchy, but a dangerous liaison may lead to revolt — as we’ve learned from books. — By Clementine Ford

The Dirt: There are only so many stories to be told about high society, but we always eat them up. 

Posting Notice: Dirt will henceforth italicize the titles of anything that has a title — shows, movies, books, internet publications, podcasts, whatever. This is not a decision I take lightly; I don’t entirely believe in italic titles, but it does get confusing not doing it. My experimental strategy of bolding show or movie titles at first mention was innovative, I think, but perhaps misguided. I refuse, however, to non-ital titles that are in ital text. — Kyle