Serena Bhandari compares and contrasts two sardonic portrayals of wealth
Brett Easton Ellis’ modern classic American Psycho has been lauded over the past couple of decades for its satirical criticism of capitalism’s materialistic cruelty. Following Patrick Bateman, the eponymous American psycho, the novel explores themes relating to commodification and postmodernism; for this portrayal it is popular, if controversial, worldwide. Ezra Koenig’s recent Netflix animation Neo Yokio, on the other hand, has received mixed-to-negative reviews; in fact, the only aspect that appears to have received widespread praise is the inclusion of an excessively large Toblerone.
Nevertheless, as I watched it, I found myself connecting the two. Whilst being about as different as two pieces of media can be in terms of style (read: disturbing stream-of-conscious narrative versus the illegitimate child of 90s anime and Gossip Girl), the themes prevalent in Neo Yokio mirror those in American Psycho so closely, it could arguably be renamed “American Psycho-Lite.”
For a start, both pieces of media centre around the day-to-day life of an uber-rich, Manhattan socialite; a voyeuristic obsession with the rich and beautiful can be seen across television, literature and film, but between these two narratives, there is more than just a coincidental resemblance.
Neo Yokio’s protagonist Kaz Kaan (Jaden Smith) may not moonlight as a brutal murderer – bizarre demon-exorcism side-plots aside – but he shares many of Bateman’s values, interactions and mannerisms. Both characters are portrayed as vapid and define those around them by appearance and adherence to upper-class social norms. A prominent example rears its head in Neo Yokio, as one plotline follows Kaan’s borderline obsessive dismay at the thought of wearing a midnight blue tuxedo to a black-and-white themed ball. This exaggeration of a trivial issue is only heightened by supporting characters Lexy and Gottlieb, who emphasise the severity of the capitalist bubble in which the show is set. Similar instances occur frequently in American Psycho, as Bateman takes pleasure in deriding his colleagues for not fitting his image of social normality.
Both Kaan and Bateman are fixated on their own superiority. A core facet of the Neo Yokio universe is the omnipresent Bachelor Board; a shallow listing of the most eligible bachelors in the city which manifests itself in a physical billboard in what looks like the show’s version of Times Square. It is through his placement on the board that Kaan values himself; his rivalry with on-and-off “ichiban bachelor” Arcangelo is a constant throughout the show. This is comparable with the motivations for Bateman’s earlier crimes in American Psycho. In one particularly memorable part of the book, he chooses to kill a colleague who has better business cards than him, and is able to book a table at an in-demand restaurant.
The most obvious similarity between American Psycho and Neo Yokio is the continuous mention of real-life fashion labels. Whilst practically the trademark of the former, Neo Yokio also engages in its fair share of name-dropping; it seems almost impossible for an item of clothing, or an accessory by a well-known designer to feature without a character making a pointed statement about it in-show. In both pieces of media, characters speak the lingo of hypercapitalism; whilst these references are more prevalent in American Psycho, the effort that characters in Neo Yokio go to in order to point out branding is highly notable. In one episode, Kaan and his socialite friends attempt to smuggle a suspected terrorist out of Neo Yokio in a duffel bag. Time may be of the essence, but characters are still able to take a break to comment on the designer (Louis Vuitton, if you were curious).
Unlike many current fiction pieces about the rich, both American Psycho and Neo Yokio seem overtly aware of the pitfalls stemming from glamorisation of the upper class. A recurring theme in both stories is the futility of wealth. Nothing that either character does ever has lasting consequences; they try to define themselves through commodities and adherence to the strict social norms, and even in rare instances where they choose to deviate from their ascribed activities, those around them choose to ignore it. Whilst this is explored more in depth American Psycho, as Bateman commits progressively more grotesque crimes over the course of the novel but is still not recognised as a killer by those around him, we do see Kaan’s realisation of this start to emerge. In one of the final scenes of Neo Yokio, Kaan is cornered by law enforcement, only for it to be revealed that they cannot touch him due to “magistocratic immunity”. This alludes to parallels in real life, such as the recent cases of Brock Turner and Lavinia Woodward; both middle class student criminals who were sentenced leniently due to their social status and “life prospects”.
In neither story do characters seem to need to work. Lexy and Gottlieb invent what they call the “caprese martini”, a drink trend that sweeps Neo Yokio. They begin to sell them with Kaan as the poster child, but it is revealed later in the series that their “bar” is a small room with space for no more than three inhabitants; they have no need for success, and their entrepreneurial exploits are purely to pass the time. Similarly, Bateman is supposedly a high-flying Wall Street banker, but appears to do very little work over the course of the novel, preferring to attend dinners and party with beautiful women instead.
Finally, after a long narrative, both pieces end where they began. For American Psycho, that’s a nightclub, whilst for Neo Yokio the location is the side lines of a tennis court, but the thematic impact is the same. Nothing has changed. The implication of this is that nothing in the plot actually mattered; again, a reference to the futility and fragility of social status.
For all the similarities, there are of course, some differences; Neo Yokio is firmly set in an urban fantasy realm, and the frankly adorable, if irritating Kaan is a far cry from the brutal cruelty of American Psycho’s leading man. The tone of Neo Yokio is definitely more light-hearted, and the themes mentioned above are less in-depth and obvious than in American Psycho. This is not Gossip Girl, in which the Manhattan socialite realm is played straight for dramatic television. Both pieces are hyper-aware, exaggerated satires of the extravagant lifestyle that people of the Trump/Kardashian/Hilton variety call “normality”. Taking the above comparison into consideration, why is it that one has been revered and the other reduced to meme status?
For critics complaining about the show lacking inspiration, or being generally awful – look below the surface. In a world of Kardashians, where the rich are upheld on pedestals for mere commoners like you or I to worship, I for one am glad that there is a show combatting this. It may not be as complex, or as pointed as American Psycho, but it provides relevant commentary on some of society’s flaws and highlights that the themes explored in Easton Ellis’ novel aren’t going anywhere. Neo Yokio may not be the most polished example of satire, and it certainly has its flaws, but it does a brilliant job in reopening discussions about capitalism as a sanitised, less gory, version of American Psycho.
Featured image credit: via Netflix