If you’re not obsessed with Jaden Smith’s Twitter persona or the absurd, nihilistic, off-the-cuff comments he makes during interviews, Neo Yokio has nothing for you.
Neo Yokio is a combination of shows like Gossip Girl and anime series like Bleach. Smith voices Kaz Kaan, Neo Yokio’s most eligible bachelor who is trying to forget about the ambitious girlfriend he lost to San Francisco’s booming financial scene. Kaz is a sweet kid, who doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s a poorer class of citizen; one that has to perform exorcisms to maintain his position in society. Kaz is Neo Yokio’s version of new money. He would rather spend his time thinking about the unfairness of love and the randomness of life than partake in his obligatory duties.
Nothing about his first world trials and tribulations is charming. Kaz is an easy character to hate because he’s based entirely on Smith’s Twitter persona. His philosophical statements are eye-roll inducing and every moment of exaggerated teenage angst results in you muttering “give me a break” under your breath. Kaz is annoying, self-centered, narcissistic and infuriating but he’s also intriguing and borderline obsession worthy.
He is an attempt at everything that Smith’s Twitter account — and his persona at large — have become over the last few years.
A treasure trove of content
Smith’s Twitter account is a treasure trove of insight into the mindset of the actor-turned-musician-turned-fashion-designer-turned-internet-entity. His tweets have been embroidered on pillows, printed on t-shirts and given away as birthday gifts. Smith even accomplished the remarkable act of defining his own style of tweets, capitalizing the first letter of each word. A quick glance of a tweet, even without reading the wisdom jotted down by the teenager, would still be read as a Smith tweet.
Maybe it’s that Smith understands Twitter better than most people, but he built a following on his philosophical bullshit — the type of Plato-inspired quotes that clog up your Instragram and Facebook feed became Smith’s voice on Twitter. There was something a little off about what he was doing and, after months of trying to figure it out, a collective understanding washed over his followers; it was sincerity.
Smith believed what he was tweeting. Even if his persona became larger-than-life, there was an honesty in the tweets that he was sending. The stranger he became online, the more honest the tweets got.
If A Book Store Never Runs Out Of A Certain Book, Dose That Mean That Nobody Reads It, Or Everybody Reads It— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) August 7, 2013
I Don't Like To Tweet But The New Hunger Games Is Literally Amazing.— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) November 19, 2013
Most Trees Are Blue— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) March 23, 2013
Whenever You Disagree With Somebody Just Remember The Dress And Accept That You Guys Are SEEING Two Different Things.— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) March 24, 2015
Smith’s tweets may have come from honest inspirations, but they were still part of a game, an ongoing social experiment to see how people would react to him. The criticism came in waves; comparisons started being made between him and other eccentric artists online including one of his idols, Kanye West (Smith attended West’s wedding to Kim Kardashian, where Smith wore a white Batman suit for the entire ceremony).
Smith is eccentric, but he’s not an idiot. The artist told GQ in 2015 that it was fun to put on a show and try to exaggerate the truth he was finding in conversations he was having. Being called crazy, Smith said, was an honor, not an insult.
It's fun, bro. That's what a lot of people don't realize. It's fun. It's so much fun. It's the best thing. People think you're crazy—I feel like it's an honor, actually, for people to think I'm crazy. Because they thought Galileo was crazy, too, you know what I'm saying? I don't think I'm as revolutionary as Galileo, but I don't think I'm not as revolutionary as Galileo.
The melancholy that comes with romance, the loneliness that comes with fame and vulnerability that comes with honesty are important parts of Smith’s persona on Twitter and in his music. The artist isn’t afraid to open up about how he’s feeling, whenever he’s feeling it. That raw sense of honesty and sense of self he established at a young age is what made him such a compelling character. He’s someone that could be admired as a concept from afar, but would probably be a nightmare to deal with in real life.
It doesn’t work for Kaz
All of these aspects of Smith’s persona — the social media canvas he uses to paint a picture of who he is — are alluded to in Neo Yokio, but Kaz never comes off as a Smith clone. Honestly, the show suffers for that reason. The six episodes we get with Kaz offer some funny, astute Smith moments — there’s one particular scene in the first episode where Kaz patronizes an elderly man for not understanding the importance of keeping up with appearances and trends — but he isn’t captivating.
What makes Smith such a remarkable artist is the mystery around his art. Smith spent years cultivating this persona. He crafted an audience because of his ability to let his guard down and open up, without ever giving too much away. He was authentic, but treated his Twitter account like a game, playing with whoever tuned in.
From the first time we meet Kaz, the oddball feels forced. The dialogue is almost lifted straight from Smith’s account but it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world that creator Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) has made. All of Neo Yokio is weird, but Kaz’s hopeless romantic syndrome only annoys everyone around him. We’re supposed to believe that Kaz is a brilliant, funny, sentimental guy — like Smith — but we’re not given anything to back that up beyond his nice guy routine.
Kaz is a normal kid who happens to say weird things and that’s not what Smith has ever pretended to be; in fact, just the opposite. Smith has always been an exceptional child of incredible wealth and privilege who pretends that everything he says is transparent and normal. Kaz’s statements get him weird looks from friends and eye-rolls from family members; Smith’s declarations result in New York Time profiles and GQ spotlights.
The thing about Smith is that he’s not a real person. There are moments of humanity embedded in his persona, but he’s a projected idea of what he wants people to see. That doesn’t work for a TV character. We need to be able to root for Kaz, even if we don’t like him, we need to understand him. That’s hard to do with Kaz because he’s constructed on an abstract idea for an art project that someone created.
Kaz isn’t a character so much as he’s an algorithm of what worked on Twitter for someone else.
As someone who adores the obnoxious persona Smith has created for himself and admires his dedication to the role he’s decided to play, I wanted to love Kaz. The echoing, empty shell that Smith’s comments are reverberated through doesn’t pack the same wallop Smith’s tweets do.
It’s a strange time. Television and movies are taking influence from Tumblr accounts and Twitter threads. It’s difficult to take inspiration from something that exists in an ever evolving ecosystem like the internet and turn it into a tangible joke that works in a linear narrative.
Neo Yokio is proof of that.
Kaz should have worked. On paper, Smith’s persona is the perfect type of character for this type of series. The fact that it didn’t is both strange and disappointing. Neo Yokio is a good lesson in what to avoid when translating a digital concept to a digital series.
After all, this won’t be the last time someone tries to emulate an online personality for a piece of entertainment.
Neo Yokio will be available to stream on Sept. 22.