‘My existential dread is acting up today:’ Ezra Koenig’s ‘Neo Yokio’
Maggie Walsh | Monday, October 30, 2017
If you are wondering what Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend has been up to in the four years since his band’s latest record “Modern Vampires of the City” was released, here is part of your answer. In late September, Netflix released season one of Koenig’s anime-style brainchild, “Neo Yokio,” in its entirety. The series follows Kaz Kaan, a wealthy and terminally morose young adult living in a futuristic — and perhaps post-apocalyptic — version of a city that resembles both New York City and Tokyo. Kaan, voiced by Jaden Smith, is tasked with defending the city from demons intent on destroying Neo Yokio and its numerous wealthy socialites. His Aunt Agatha (Susan Sarandon) seems to serve as both his guardian angel and his tormenter: each episode revolves around the dangerous and complicated tasks that Aunt Agatha badgers Kaan into accomplishing. His two best friends, Lexy and Gottlieb, voiced by The Kid Mero and Desus Nice respectively, often join Kaan on his missions, or at the very least provide him with some liquid courage in the form of their signature Caprese Martinis. Musician and actor of Coconut Records and “Rushmore” fame, Jason Schwartzman, voices Kaan’s nemesis, the aptly named Arcangelo. The most enjoyable character is Kaan’s sidekick, a hilarious robot butler named Charles (Jude Law). Beyond the star studded cast, music fans will be happy to note that Will Wiesenfeld, better known by his artist name Baths, is one of the composers for the show’s enjoyable score.
“Neo Yokio” is relatively unusual in that it is actually the side characters and not Kaan himself that viewers will find themselves favoring. Kaan, obsessed with Toblerone, pure black tuxedos and general elegance, is dramatic and conceited to the point of satire, “a lapdog of the bourgeoisie” as one character so nicely puts it. Kaan describes himself as “prone to melancholy.” Kaan is certainly over the top, but simultaneously somehow heartwarmingly relatable. One of the best lines in the show is actually an excuse Kaan voiced in an effort to avoid his Aunt Agatha: “My existential dread is acting up today.” In other words, every college student’s favorite new way to explain away a gloomy disposition. When his girlfriend breaks up with him and moves to San Francisco, Kaan goes so far as to not only purchase, but also regularly visit his own tombstone in an ornate graveyard, toting fresh flowers and theatrical sighs each visit. Kaan’s behavior is certainly entertaining, but viewers will need to look to characters such as Charles and Arcangelo for the more lighthearted comic relief.
Distinctly New York cultural references, undercurrents of biting social commentary, and eloquent witticisms that fans of Vampire Weekend will appreciate as patently “Ezra Koenig,” offset the show’s relatively simple plot line.
Allusions to chopped cheeses and stereotypes of Long Islanders make this show surprisingly regional, but no less accessible to viewers. Hailing from The Bronx themselves, voice actors The Kid Mero and Desus Nice let their New York accents out in full force. A particularly powerful aspect of the show is the setting of Neo Yokio itself, which is different from New York in that the lower side of Manhattan is nonexistent, or rather, underwater. The show does not linger on the Sea Beneath 14th Street, yet the setting is a reminder of the reality of sea level rise and climate change in New York City.
Koenig’s satirical and absurdist sense of humor, familiar to followers of his Instagram and Twitter accounts, permeates the series’ script. The comedy does not take away from, but rather supplements an underlying commentary on social class. The city of Neo Yokio revolves around the wealthy, or more specifically, the comically shallow anxieties of the wealthy. In one of the final episodes of the series, Charles distractedly states, “Neo Yokio doesn’t concern itself with the safety of its slum denizens.” One cannot help but think of how applicable this line might be to the current social climate in the broader United States. This subtle political commentary should not be surprising for fans of Koenig, who was an avid supporter of Bernie Sanders in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.
Although television is new territory for Koenig, the creativity and personality infused into “Neo Yokio” will draw in fans of Vampire Weekend’s clever lyricism. “Neo Yokio” is available now on Netflix in six, thirty-minute long installments: perfect for procrastinating schoolwork – within reason – throughout the hopefully short interval until Vampire Weekend’s forthcoming album is finally released.