Devon Thomas24 March 2022 | 10:00

'Young, Famous and African': A deep dive into shallow waters

In this review, Devon Thomas delves into the disappointing makings of Netflix's new African reality TV show 'Young, Famous and African'.

'Young, Famous and African': A deep dive into shallow waters

'Young, Famous and African' cast, Annie Macaulay-Idibia (L), Khanyi Mbau (C) and Zari the Boss Lady (R). Picture: Supplied/Netflix


Contains no spoilers.

Netflix just released its anticipated new reality television show Young, Famous and African. Starring the likes of Khanyi Mbau, Diamond Platinumz, Zari the Boss Lady and Annie Macaulay-Idibia, the show is described as an “unscripted soap opera”, centred around the turbulent but opulent lives of some of Africa’s biggest (relatively) young stars.

Apart from trying to be an entertaining reality show, it seems like its primary intention is to reposition the outdated narrative of Africa being a destitute continent often dubbed as a country by our Western counterparts.

In place of the rhetoric of underdevelopment, the show attempts to glamourise the continent by presenting it as a place that is just as bougie as any other country in the West (read: the United States of America).

To its credit, at first glance, it does a remarkable job at this. The show looks rich. The production is clean. The aesthetic is opulent. The styling is grandiose in its presentation. Netflix clearly said BUDGET, which ultimately makes the show truly a spectacle to watch.

And if the show only wanted to achieve that, it does a fairly decent job at conveying this.

But something is missing.

By consistently reminding the audience that it wants to redefine the continent, one would expect some sort of nuanced or at least interesting depiction of its primary setting.

Instead, the audience is treated to the singular cosmopolitan setting of Sandton, Johannesburg. Sandton is Africa’s richest square mile, but there honestly isn’t anything interesting or definitive about the pseudo-metropolis that requires almost the entirety of the show to be set there.

Filming the show almost exclusively in a singular setting loses any interesting characteristic that would set it apart from other reality TV shows in the US. The show lacks individual identity apart from the fact that it’s an African show with an African cast taking place in Africa. Edgy, I know.

It honestly would’ve served itself better if it was titled Love and Hip-Hop: Sandton.

This sort of identity disconnect is further emphasised by the overall production of the show and its running storylines.

Though it is undeniable that the show has a certain charm to it and is an overall entertaining watch with a truly enigmatic cast (team Khanyi, let’s go), there is nothing distinct about it.

If you’re looking for a glossy show with some admittedly meme-able one-liners, then you should find the show to be a delightful guilty pleasure.

But further from that, if the cast and setting did change, absolutely nothing about the actual show would. This is disappointing because one would expect more from a show priding itself on being Netflix’s first African reality TV show.

The show lacks idiosyncrasy in what I would assume is Netflix’s attempt at trying to reach the broadest audience it possibly can.

As someone who lives in South Africa, absolutely nothing about this show feels like it is a South African show.

It almost comes across as a Western attempt at recreating an established brand known for drama, glitz and glamour.

I do, though, admire the cast’s willingness to commit to being the drama. Mbau shines as the show’s anchor while Zari dominates as its resident villain – providing for what is probably the best conflict of the show.

But even here the show falls flat from a storytelling point of view.

Yes, this is a reality show. Yes, this is meant to appear as an unscripted imitation of life. And yes, even the best of reality shows still require some sort of suspension of disbelief. But, my God, the lack of a consistent arc with a decent setup and satisfactory resolution becomes notably frustrating after the show concludes its seven-episode run.

Somehow, the show manages to feel like it started in the middle of a season and ended feeling undercooked.

A disappointing number of sloppily set-up arcs in the show seem to go nowhere. And the ones that do have advancement and even a resolution often feel unearned.

Sometimes a lack of a resolution aids a show and could leave the audience salivating for more and aching for a chaotic reunion episode. But Love and Hip-Hop: Sandton ends its season on the worst case of blue balls I have ever experienced when watching a reality show. It almost feels like the show had at least one more episode that got lost somewhere on a disgruntled intern’s hard drive.

At first, I tried justifying it as a reality show and that in real life not everything will have a resolution. But the season finale both attempts to set up conflict resolution and bring up brand-new conflicts in the last 10 or so minutes of the show, which it tried building up for the latter half of the season, and then it simply ended.

This jarring lack of a coherent narrative and an easily identifiable aesthetic that would set it apart feels like the show was trying too hard to emulate a tired formula made famous by the US.

The problem with this lack of discernible direction is that this formula works for the States because it was created by them, for them. It defines everything the American Dream could be.

Honestly, if I wasn’t told what these people did or didn’t have a clue of who they were, I would have no idea what set them apart from any other run-of-the-mill Western celebrity.

If YFA shifted its focus more on what the show could provide that makes it unique to the African context, tightened up its storylines, and broadened its horizons, perhaps the show could have been more than something you put on during Netflix and Chill or after a long day at work when all your brain wants to do is shut off. Or, something you don't tune into at all.

Instead, by firmly entrapping its focus on Western emulation, vague utterances of their actual private lives divorced from what was filmed on the show, and its overreliance on aesthetics as well as showing instead of telling, the show hinders its own narrative identity and thematic intentions.

But, hey, at least it’s mindlessly entertaining and looks pretty.