Ezra Koenig and Jaden Smith’s Neo Yokio Is a Letdown
While the new Vampire Weekend album hasn’t been officially revealed, Ezra Koenig recently announced—and subsequently released—Neo Yokio, a bizarre new anime Netflix series that may as well be subtitled Millenials Say the Darndest Things. Set in a futuristic New York City partly submerged by what may be the effects of global warming, Koenig’s comedy series stars Jaden Smith as a self-centered, fashion-obsessed “magistocrat” named Kaz Kaan, whose chief concerns include fighting demons and deciding between midnight blue and black attire. He’s backed by a multi-generation cadre of cool folk—Jude Law, Desus and the Kid Mero, Susan Sarandon, and Tavi Gevinson all star—as he balances his supernatural duties with the pangs of being a vain socialite.
Neo Yokio follows the cast as they survive this high society’s bizarre rigors. Kaz, newly single and depressed, jostles for the No. 1 spot on a public bachelor’s ranking board located in Times Square. He also has to contend with Helena (Gevinson), an influencer who sees the meaninglessness of fashion only after he performs an exorcism on her. Although this is a Koenig-driven project, Neo Yokio very much exists in Jaden Smith’s head. The sometime musician’s public presence is part societal malaise and part third-eye wit, linked by his unforced charm—qualities that are predominant in Vampire Weekend’s own music, in case the collaboration was surprising to anyone.
Still, that charm suffers when it’s stretched over six episodes. Neo Yokio tries to use that Smithian voice to satirize societal issues like class, self-awareness, and privilege, but anyone who’s glanced at Jaden’s feed or follows the woke Twitter cognoscenti is aware that these points have already been made. Take Kaz’s fun-loving buddies Gottlieb and Lexi, respectively played by Desus and Mero, who spend large parts of the series joking about fuckboys—something fans know they’ve already been doing for years. Their voices feel processed and repetitious, which is especially off-putting because of their typically improvisational style.
The writing overall is too rigid in its commitment to high-society ennui to bother with building characters beyond archetypes, or delivering fluid character dynamics. As a result, you get dialogue like this, in which Gevinson’s Helena crashes a Met Gala-like party in a medical gown and proceeds to dispense Existentialism 101.
Kaz: Helena, what are you doing here? You look ridiculous.
Helena: My parents forced me to come to the ball, but there was no way I was putting on a stupid gown.
Kaz: But everyone’s talking about you.
Helena: Let them talk. This is all meaningless spectacle.
Kaz: Seriously, you’re embarrassing yourself.
Helena: This ball is an embarrassment. And this is my protest!
Or here, where Kaz’s mecha-butler Charles (Jude Law) proses about the ironic tranquility of Central Park.
Charles: Just as this calm pool of water sits at the center of a chaotic metropolis, you, too, have an inner reservoir of peace and tranquility.
Kaz: I like this kind of talk, Charles. More vibes, please.
The lines are verbose and the voice acting are too aggressively atonal to stick any of the jokes. Sarandon sticks out horribly, and Gevinson’s philosophical deadpanning is so irritating it’s bizarre no one on the production team picked up on it. Kaz is basically Smith with magic powers, and yet Smith sounds so unconvincing playing himself. Because Neo Yokio is heavily invested in its blunted sarcasm, most of the surrounding elements feel bland and undeveloped. None of the action sequences carry any stakes because the plot feels like an afterthought. The animation is uniformly flat, and although it’s far from abysmal, it’s on the lower end of collaborator Production I.G’s standards.
Perhaps what’s most disappointing about Neo Yokio is that the project seemed like the sort of thing Koenig would be good at. A major part of Vampire Weekend’s excellence lies in how the band managed to blend multiple styles into an aesthetic that’s intricate yet never homogeneous, and Koenig’s Beats 1 show Time Crisis has also been an eclectic joy. But there are so many promising elements that never quite cohere on this show. No, there isn’t a show like Neo Yokio, but the same can be said for Funky Purple Heinz EZ Squirt Ketchup. Sure, they’re unique. They’re synthetic and awkward as hell, too.