Posted on February 26, 2014
The tagline for the cable network Mnet America is “All Things Asian Cool,” and the opening of its new reality show Alpha Girls seems to deliver on that promise. Set against a frenetic EDM soundscape, it zips from Las Vegas to New York to Seoul to Los Angeles as it shows off the colorful, creative lives of its four titular protagonists: model Soo Joo Park, hip-hop illustrator Mina Kwon, DJ and producerTOKiMONSTA (a.k.a. Jennifer Lee) and fashion designer Miss Lawn (Lanie Alabanza-Barcena), founder and creative director of the label Hellz Bellz.
All of the girls evince obvious and distinctive personal style, but beyond what the camera glimpses, the first two episodes of Alpha Girls fail to capture the essence beneath each artist’s flashy garb. Each is given a storyline at the start of the show — Park worries about whether her foot fracture will affect her ability to walk in New York Fashion Week, Kwon is traveling from her native South Korea to the U.S. in hopes of shaking her creative slump — but too much is devoted to telling, not showing. “This weekend is going to be crazy. My best friend’s bachelorette party is the same weekend as trade show,” says Alabanza-Barcena, rattling off her itinerary during a 90-second scene of getting her hair foiled.
Mnet America, the English-language spinoff network to South Korea’s version of MTV, straddles a tricky line between catering to diehard K-Pop fans at least somewhat familiar with Alpha Girls’ characters and introducing that universe to channel surfers who have stumbled into the triple digits. Alpha Girls attempts to get the introductions over with quickly, flashing each girl’s resume via giant captions at the start of her introductory segment. But the result is that they are defined more by their association with known celebrities than by the merits of their own work. Pharrell Williams makes a cameo in the pilot, meeting up with his friend Kwon and receiving a painting from her. “How do you incorporate everything I love? It’s so brilliantly Americana,” he raves, making a “we’re not worthy” bow. Viewers are given only a brief glimpse of the object of his praise — a Louis Vuitton-printed SpongeBob Squarepants portrait — in an upside-down camera shot.
There is promise in the premise. Park visits her parents at home in California, and they sit around code-switching — conversing back and forth in Korean and English — while paging through her high-fashionVogue Korea cover editorial in a happy collision of immigrant and generational, suburban and haute couture cultures.
“We’ve reached a point in Western culture where an indie artist can be bigger than a pop artist,” says Lee in the second episode. It’s the thesis to an intriguing conversation about Western versus Eastern culture, underground versus mainstream art that is otherwise left unexplored.
Despite its deficits off the ground, Alpha Girls does offer airtime to “dominant females; girls who have found their place in a non-traditional career path,” according to the series’ definition of its title. It hardly needs to be stated that conventional media portrayals of Asian and Asian-Americans are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-oriented. If Alpha Girls can find a way to sharpen its storytelling during its eight-episode run, it could provide a much-needed alternative to the archetype.