* This review contains minor spoilers for all 12 episodes of the Netflix series Celebrity.
The new Netflix original series Celebrity offers a look into the seedy underbelly of the world of online influencers and social media stars. While not a wholly unique concept on its own, Celebrity manages to add its own dark twist to the proceedings, by adding a murder mystery element in which the supposed victim returns from the dead in order to spill the secrets behind this glamorous world.
The series kicks off with an Instagram livestream by Seo A-Ri (played by Park Gyu-Young), who was one of South Korea’s top influencers before her sudden death just several months earlier.
However, A-Ri claims that she is very much alive, and that she is ready to reveal all about her rise to fame, including certain “cheat codes” that helped her rise to the top, as well as the true natures of some of the nation’s most beloved social media stars.
Her ‘return’ shocks everyone, especially a group of high-flying influencers known as the Gabin Society, all of whom had their own reasons for wanting A-Ri dead in the first place.
A-Ri’s backstory – and in fact, most of the series – is told in flashback, and we find out that A-Ri never intended to become an influencer in the first place. In fact, she started out as a door-to-door salesgirl. Her family was once rich, but her now-deceased textile factory owner father lost his fortune, leaving A-Ri, her mother and brother to fend for themselves.
A-Ri’s only insight into the world of influencers comes from her best friend Jeong-Sun (Park Ye-Ni), who eagerly tells her about the latest scandal in the social media scene involving the Gabin Society. However, A-Ri’s life suddenly changes after a chance meeting with Oh Min-Hye (Jun Hyo-Seong), an old high school friend who is now one of the Gabin Society influencers.
Under the impression that A-Ri is still rich, Min-Hye invites her to a society party, unknowingly kickstarting A-Ri’s rise to fame and bringing her into contact with a group of people who ultimately become either her allies and/or her enemies.
The latter essentially consists of most of the Gabin Society, made up of Min-Hye, who is quick to see A-Ri as a threat to her own position; the chaebol princess and loose cannon Chae-Hee; her hanger-on Ji-Na; and the ditzy Angela.
Among the few supporting A-Ri are Si-hyeon (Lee Chung-Ah), the most level-headed member of the Gabin Society, and Joon-Kyung (Kang Min-Hyuk), the head of a makeup conglomerate who finds himself attracted by A-Ri’s straightforward personality and ambition.
As she begins to establish herself in the influencer world, A-Ri also finds another ally, an anonymous social media celebrity user called “bbbfamous”, who supplies her with some insider information into the lives of the Gabin Society members which she uses to thwart their plots against her, until bbbfamous turns against her in spectacular fashion.
Halfway through the series, A-Ri becomes an unwilling bystander in a drug party involving most of the Gabin Society members which results in the death of a club worker. Although the event is hushed up, the guilt eats away at A-Ri, leading her to come clean to the police – eventually sealing her downfall, and leading to her death. (Or does it?)
WHAT MAKES IT WORK
The title of each episode of the series has a hashtag, and the series begins with a ‘tutorial’ given by A-Ri about the steps she took to become famous, and then later as indicators of the various scandals and secrets she was a part of.
Those early episodes were some of the most engaging, as we got to see A-Ri break down what goes on behind the scenes of the otherwise glamorous world of influencer society, revealing just how complicated and cutthroat it can be, and how everything can be manipulated for maximum attention.
But besides those undeniably juicy insights, what makes the show really engaging are the performances by the cast, primarily Park Gyu-Young. Already a familiar face from series such as Sweet Home and It’s Okay To Not Be Okay (and set to appear in the upcoming Season 2 of Squid Game), Park shines in her role as A-Ri, a complex character who feels a mixture of disdain and desire for the world that she falls into.
Special mention has to go to the actresses playing the ‘evil’ members of the Gabin Society – Jun Hyo-Seong, Han Jae-In, Kim Si-Hyun and Han Eu-Ddeum. While they are no doubt playing hyper-exaggerated social media villains, they also provide the perfect counter to A-Ri, even as she herself proves more than willing to use underhanded methods to achieve success.
WHERE IT FALLS SHORT
Despite being able to hook audiences early on, Celebrity suffers from poor pacing issues, especially towards the latter half. Some scenes feel added on just to stretch the time, and one cannot help but feel that cutting out certain plotlines and having only 10, or even eight episodes, might have made for a tighter storyline overall.
Not only that, but the show’s romantic arc between A-Ri and Joon-Kyung seemed somewhat tepid, and even felt a little forced at times. Sadly, Park Gyu-Young and Kang Min-Hyuk just failed to ignite any sparks, which speaks more to their lack of chemistry when put together, rather than their individual talents as actors.
I also found the ending to be somewhat anti-climactic, and somewhat disappointing considering the amount of effort taken to build up to it. However, perhaps that itself is a commentary on the negative effects of the pursuit of fame: that ultimately everything feels hollow in the end.
While it does have its flaws, overall Celebrity does add a breath of fresh air to the current slate of summer K-drama releases, and definitely gives audiences some food for thought about the secret lives of online celebrities.
Celebrity is currently showing on Netflix.
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