I watch few fictional shows. My tastes are not really cut out for pop culture. But when someone told me Neo Yokio was “a six episode long dril tweet,” I decided the Netflix anime series, created by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, would be worth investigating. So I watched the generally derided series with a few friends, and I realized this show wasn’t actually bad—instead, it was about us and the life that we lived.
We were a bunch of normal people who ended up at Columbia University, awkward Tim and Eric fans tossed into the senseless microcosm of New York City wealth, constantly mocking and simultaneously desiring this real, Gossip Girl-esque lifestyle.
And I’d describe Neo Yokio as Gossip Girl as told by a stoned Tim and Eric fan. The show is about a melancholy nouveau riche demon-hunter Kaz Kaan, voiced by Jaden Smith, who tries to balance his professional life with his Neo Yokio high society social commitments alongside his friends Lexy and Gottlieb, fashion blogger Helena St. Tessero, and rival Arcangelo Corelli. The show portrays a glamorous New York almost devoid of poverty (except for “Long Island Walled City”). To call its humor absurd and deadpan is an understatement.
Based on this description, you might not be shocked to hear that people don’t care for the show. People have called it “flawed,” a “train wreck,” a “bad homage to Jaden Smith’s Twitter account” that “failed the execution.” At best the show has been called a satire—or more frequently, a failed attempt at satire. But to me and my friends, it felt like a faithful portrayal of how someone like us experienced New York City.
Those friends and I were middle class suburban public school students who grew up adjacent to neglected communities, and immediately bonded freshman year over our love of hip hop and similar teenage experiences. I went to a high school beside John F. Kennedy airport, in a neighborhood that shared a border with the easternmost reaches of New York City. It simultaneously sent a few kids annually to Ivy League schools and had one the lowest graduation rates in the county. Here is its utterly offensive Urban Dictionary definition, presented without comment.
At a distant cousin’s suggestion, I auditioned for and was accepted to sing in the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s chorus professionally from fourth to eighth grade. There, I got my first taste of New York City wealth and learned how to behave in front of the rich kids—my close friends included Art Garfunkel’s son James and Ezra Miller. But I knew my school friends would make fun of me, since to them, only obese women in Viking horns sang opera. I played along and made fun of it, too.
At Columbia, I spent most of my freshman year watching YouTube videos stoned with the friends I met in the marching band, students who both wanted to get wasted but weren’t millionaires. Playing an instrument was not a requirement. But I ran for student council as a joke and won. By my junior year when I was elected class president, soon people thought I was worth talking to. Things I’d only previously heard about on Gossip Girl were inescapable. I made new friends who invited me to parties at the wealthy quasi-secret society, Saint Anthony’s Hall—a.k.a. St. A’s—and I introduced them to my old friends who were soon invited too. Those experiences ended with graduation and I left as a regular old shithead who now knows a lot about tie knots, dead white male writers, and with an equal knowledge of Biggie and Verdi.
Neo Yokio immediately made sense to me. I felt like I’d met all of the characters before:
- Main character Kaz Kaan is an idealized Columbia student—someone who’s smart enough to take part in the culture but needs to put the work in and make money to pay off his loans and make his relatives, in this case Aunt Agatha, proud. He could have been any semi-aware startup bro, investment banker or consultant who obsesses over looking and playing the part, buying the latest fashion while still trying to understand and sympathize with whatever protest was going on.
- Lexy and Gottlieb were the characters my close friend and classical music journalist James Bennett II and I immediately latched onto. James, our other friends and I were scrappy goofballs who managed to find our way into the snootier parts of Columbia life, keeping ourselves relevant by acting silly in front of large groups of people and by creating comedy and rap videos about Columbia culture. Our rooms were loaded with 40s much like Lexy and Gottlieb’s bar. When Lexy derisively said one character “just moved here last week, she doesn’t know what a chopped cheese is,” referring to the $3.50 New York take on the Philly Cheesesteak made from a chopped-up hamburger, we shrieked. It was literally a sentence one of us said a few weeks ago.
- Then there’s Helena, the pseudo-woke one-time fashion blogger. I immediately recognized her as either our stereotype of a NYU student (she lived on Washington Square Park), or New York City hipster. Why pseudo-woke? While arguing with Kaz about why she won’t come to a black-and-white ball, she says, “You sound crazy, I sound enlightened.” The performative nature of her anti-establishment opinions could only have come from someone equally as wealthy (not to mention paying just as much tuition money) as her uptown counterparts.
- The show’s best character, Arcangelo Corelli, is fairly self-explanatory as the snotty old-money person. I didn’t meet anyone during my college years who acted quite like he did, but one of my close friends who (I’m certain) was in St. A’s looked just like him. He fits right into the way Koenig described St. A’s to me over email: “It’s a strange place. It feels like a relic & the people there know it. It’s a strange performance of class. It was a fun place for Vampire Weekend to play though.”
Watching the show brought endless flashbacks to my confused college experience. Who doesn’t remember their confusion upon first encountering Jaden Smith’s strange, third-eye-opened Twitter account? Caprese Boy, the name Kaz took on to promote Lexy and Gottlieb’s “Caprese Martini,” felt like a sure reference to Tim and Eric’s Totino’s Pizza Roll ad, or Koenig’s weird Pizza Party rap video. The awkward use of classical music throughout the show felt like I was sitting in Columbia’s strange, required classical music appreciation class, Music Humanities. And plenty of us have ended up, eighteen and confused, at a party in some distant warehouse that spun something akin to Gregorian house, as Kaz does when he follows a high school teacher named Professor Muhly (an obvious recreation of Columbia graduate Nico Muhly) to “Long Island Walled City.”
You can obviously deconstruct the show or read it as satire if you want: “People watching Neo Yokio should probably take it as a given that capitalist society is fucked up and take things from there,” Koenig told me. “We literally have characters saying in the most direct, hamfisted ways that ‘Capitalism is bad.”’ We have a confused, materialistic young man wearing a Communist jumpsuit and seeing how the other half lives for the first time in his life and simply saying ‘I’m sorry everybody!’”
If you watched Neo Yokio and hated it, it’s no surprise. I know I sound like a huge asshole, telling you that the show was loaded with inside jokes accessible to only a select group of snotty idiots with particular tastes. That’s fine. I’m not here to make you like it. I’m here to tell you that I lived it.
Obviously, more than just his time at Columbia influenced the show, but Koenig confirmed that his experience was quite similar to mine. “Going to an Ivy League school in New York can bring up a lot of conflicting feelings in your run-of-the-mill middle-class scholarship student,” he said. “You witness extreme privilege at the very moment that you need to examine your own privilege. You’re sitting next to boarding school kids, titled aristocracy, celebrities, etc., but you’re also being educated at a private institution in a city with [one of] the most segregated public school system in the country.”
When I told him about my assessment that the show is Gossip Girl told by a stoned Tim and Eric fan, he didn’t disagree. “I have to admit that it’s pretty accurate,” he said in an email. “I mean I’m not gonna say what my true intention was in making the show, but it has a lot of Gossip Girl in it and I am a (sometimes) stoned Tim and Eric fan. I can’t deny that.”
Sorry if you feel like you’ve wasted your time learning about Neo Yokio, and/or reading about my unexciting life. But if you’re not totally turned off, you might as well buy a big Toblerone, sit back, and take in the very particular fever dream that is the show. Maybe you won’t enjoy it, but just know that it’s far closer to reality—albeit a ridiculous one—than its premise may suggest.