Image by Emma Kumer

XOXO, Ruling Class | Gossip Girl, The O.C., and the New Gilded Age

David Klion

In 1976, the year Josh Schwartz was born in Providence, one tenth of one percent of American households controlled 7.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. By 1995, the year Schwartz graduated from a private, arts-oriented high school, that share had risen to 13.5 percent. By 2003, when the Schwartz-penned high school drama The O.C. premiered on Fox, it was at 15.9 percent; by 2007, when the Schwartz-produced Gossip Girl premiered on The CW, it was at 17.9 percent; and this year, as a rebooted Gossip Girl (executive produced by Schwartz and helmed by one of his collaborators on the earlier show, Joshua Safran) debuts on the subscription-based HBO Max over a year into a pandemic that has only further enriched the wealthiest Americans, it most likely exceeds 20 percent — the highest it has been since the Hoover Administration.

Soaring wealth inequality has been the inescapable backdrop to Schwartz’s entire life, and to the lives of every American younger than Schwartz — which is to say, the intended audiences of all three shows. It is also, in a sense, their subject. The O.C. and both Gossip Girls were marketed as teen soap operas, and largely received as such by critics and audiences, but they are also attempts to grapple with the decadence of the American ruling class over the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

In spite of some superficial parallels and recurring themes, each show tells a somewhat different story about the elite — and each story reflects the evolution of the mainly millennial audience’s own anxieties around extreme wealth. The transition from The O.C. to the original Gossip Girl coincided with, and replicated, a growing radicalization against the rich that accelerated in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 — trading earnest soap operatics for a giddy satire of elite pathologies. Now, in the wake of an even greater social disruption, the rebooted series could have further refined its predecessor’s critique. Unfortunately, to judge from its disappointing first half-season, HBO’s Gossip Girl has a different agenda — one that is at best confused about and at worst defensive of the class interests of the American aristocracy. While it lands some satirical punches, the new series is uncertain of whether it wants to redeem the rich through “wokeness,” or to mock the idea that they can be redeemed at all.

 

The O.C. debuted a few months after the Bush Administration invaded Iraq. America’s post-9/11 militarization was the dominant story of that era, but it hardly warrants a mention on the show over four seasons. Instead, The O.C. was more presciently concerned with a subject that wouldn’t take center stage until a year after it went off the air: the enormous sums of money then fueling a speculative housing bubble across sunbelt suburbs like Orange County, California (a topic that also looms large in another 2003 Fox debut, Arrested Development). It’s a stretch to say The O.C. foresaw the 2008 financial crisis, but — perhaps drawing inspiration from the then-recent, highly publicized story of accounting fraud at Enron — it focused from the very beginning on the corruption and greed underwriting the glitzy paradise of Newport Beach. Early on, we are introduced to Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan), who is a younger, WASPier preview of Bernie Madoff — a financial advisor supporting his family’s opulent lifestyle through a comparatively amateurish Ponzi scheme that collapses just a few episodes into the first season. Another major character is Newport Beach’s wealthiest man and Jimmy’s romantic rival, Caleb Nichol (Alan Dale) — who, we gradually learn, has built his real estate empire on fraud, cascading debts, ties to organized crime, and negligent disregard for the environment.

Jimmy and Caleb both present cautionary tales on how not to be rich, and their personal shortcomings — Jimmy’s recklessness and immaturity, Caleb’s avarice and bullying — are closely linked to their financial shenanigans. Meanwhile, the show’s moral center is Jimmy’s neighbor and Caleb’s son-in-law Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), the Bronx-born and -accented public defender who ranks as one of television’s greatest husbands, dads, and community leaders. Sandy is an East Coast Jew among West Coast WASPs, much like Schwartz, who attended college among the water polo bros of USC not long before he sold The O.C. Sandy’s mother, who appears in two episodes, is an old-fashioned New York leftist, and his college ex-girlfriend is a Bernadine Dohrn figure, a former student radical. His marriage to Caleb’s daughter Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) — a Republican, an alcoholic, and the heir apparent to the family business — has made him rich, situated him among his political opposites, and confronted him with constant temptations to sell out. But Sandy is honest, smart, hardworking, and able to enjoy the perks of wealth without directly implicating himself in the sordid business of extracting it. So are Sandy’s two sons — his biological offspring, Seth (Adam Brody), a geek who likes comic books, indie rock, and being neurotic, and the informally adopted Ryan (Ben McKenzie), who comes from the wrong side of the tracks (the ethnically diverse, middle-class suburb of Chino, which is portrayed as a crime-ridden slum on the show) and is a street-smart, brooding delinquent with a heart of gold.

The O.C. begins with Sandy rescuing Ryan from a life of crime, prison, and general dysfunction in Chino and welcoming him into the comfortable and privileged world of the Cohens and their more morally and financially compromised next-door neighbors, the Coopers. At his new private school, an initially skeptical principal concedes that despite his criminal record, Ryan has “great test scores” and “extraordinary promise”; Ryan, in other words, deserves a better hand than he was originally dealt. Over the course of the show, Ryan’s working-class past repeatedly catches up with him — in the form of a pregnant ex-girlfriend whose fiancé hits her, an ex-felon brother who turns out to be a rapist, and an alcoholic mother who can’t hold down a job. (The contrast between her and Kirsten, who struggles with the same disease but has the financial means to check in to rehab, is consistent with the show’s implicit argument that money is a necessary precondition for happiness.) Ultimately, Ryan sticks with the Cohens, attends UC Berkeley, becomes an architect, and, in the show’s final moments, offers a hand to another hard-luck blond kid who reminds him of himself — paying Sandy’s original good deed forward.

For a show remembered fondly for its invention of a hybrid Jewish-Episcopalian winter holiday, “Chrismukkah,” The O.C. espouses a fundamentally Calvinist moral theology, one aligned with the hegemonic capitalist culture of its era; characters tend to get what they deserve. After Caleb dies at the end of Season 2, his business turns out to have been a sham, draining whatever funds he might have left to his shamelessly gold-digging wife, Julie (Melinda Clarke), on whom the aforementioned Jimmy (her previous husband, with whom she briefly reconciles) was relying to pay off a loan from the mob. “I sort of talked myself into loving Caleb,” Julie tells Jimmy after the will is read, oblivious to his newly dire financial situation. “Not for the money, but for the security money brings. But I never felt safe with him like I do with you. And besides, it’s not like we’re going to be poor, right?” Jimmy has no answer, and shortly thereafter gets savagely beaten by his creditors. He flees California, and the show, while Julie is forced to relocate from Caleb’s mansion to a trailer park. Jimmy and Julie’s daughter Marissa (Mischa Barton) is meanwhile expelled from private school after an escalating series of regrettable decisions (substance abuse, trusting the wrong guys, shooting one of them in self-defense) and ends up in public school, where prolonged exposure to the non-wealthy throughout the third season proves to be a literal death sentence. As the Coopers are punished for their various sins and for Caleb’s, the Cohens are mysteriously spared any material setbacks — even though the primary source of their wealth, via Kirsten, is Caleb’s fraudulent real estate empire, the Newport Group. They are fundamentally good people, and somehow there is always enough money for them.

Their goodness is tested when Sandy temporarily abandons public service to make more money advising wealthy clients, and especially during the notably dark third season, when he takes direct control of the ailing Newport Group and nearly sells his soul. Like Caleb before him, he flirts with the mob, justifying his increasingly unethical conduct as a way to build a new hospital to serve low-income residents of Newport Beach. Sandy’s descent into amoral corporate greed strains his marriage and helps push Seth into a cannabis-infused teen depression — and ultimately it’s these family crises that cause him to rediscover his moral bearings. “I used to think I was better than this place,” Sandy tells a crowd gathered to honor him. “I came from outside the bubble, so I thought I was fit to judge it… but I learned that despite the wide streets and the sunny views, you take one wrong turn in this town and you can end up totally lost.” And with that, Sandy abandons his hospital project, agrees to cooperate with the authorities against his crooked business partners, and recommits to being a devoted husband, dad, and public defender. Somehow, the Cohens remain perfectly stable and comfortable despite Sandy’s return to a paltry salary and with no obvious remaining source of income now that the Newport Group is defunct.

From beginning to end, The O.C. posits that there are two ways to be rich: the good way (being born, married, or adopted into it and working in public service or creative fields) and the bad way (working in real estate, finance, energy, or private sector law — all of which, when pursued by the show’s characters, tend to lead toward white collar criminality and moral rot). These two approaches can co-exist in the same family or on the same block, and a given character can vacillate between them; the central question The O.C. asks is how to be a decent person amid great wealth. The answer, we see again and again, is via personal kindness, noblesse oblige, and offering less fortunate individuals the chance to escape their circumstances.

The worldview of The O.C., in other words, is the bipartisan worldview of the Bush years, in which access to education was seen as an adequate solution to the problems facing the working class. The Cohens are portrayed sympathetically as suburban white professionals (the coveted social base of the post-Clinton Democratic Party) who offer Ryan an opportunity to advance socially through good schools (while leaving behind the dysfunctional, ethnically diverse community he grew up in). This set of values is also reflected in Ryan’s romantic life, which zigzags between fallen women he needs to save (the pregnant ex-girlfriend from Chino, or the downwardly mobile trainwreck Marissa) and studious, well-behaved private school classmates like the one he dates in the second season or the one he ends up with — Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser), an irritatingly single-minded overachiever in the tradition of Election’s Tracy Flick or, well, Hillary Clinton.

In the penultimate episode of the series, the Cohens’ palatial home is destroyed in an earthquake, with Newport Beach’s structural unsoundness serving as a metaphor for its moral unsoundness. Then, in the series finale, they almost effortlessly relocate to a charming bungalow in liberal Berkeley, which functions throughout the show as a kind of progressive promised land, along with similar oases like Portland and Providence — all places where the Cohens can comfortably be the Cohens. The O.C.’s final word on class, in other words, is that it can be transcended simply by leaving the O.C.

 

By 2007, the housing bubble had begun to show signs of strain, and so had The O.C. — initially a huge hit, its ratings dropped precipitously in the third season; in the fourth and final season, it more or less rebooted itself as a lighthearted sitcom. By the end, Schwartz had already shifted his attention to Gossip Girl, a TV show loosely based on a popular series of young adult novels begun in 2002 by Cecily von Ziegesar, a descendent of German aristocrats who attended the private Nightingale-Bamford School on the Upper East Side. The transition from The O.C. to Gossip Girl was a leap into a whole other rung of elite power. The most expensive apartment in Manhattan, the penthouse of 432 Park Avenue — an infamous “supertall” tower on the so-called Billionaires’ Row that appears frequently in establishing shots on the new Gossip Girl — was most recently listed at $169 million; by contrast, the most expensive mansion ever sold in Newport Beach cost a mere $61 million. While the leading families of the Upper East Side are on a first-name basis with every A-list fashion, finance, and media mogul in New York City, the most famous person Caleb Nichol ever talked to, I like to think, was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Spoiled as the teens on The O.C. are, it’s hard to imagine any of them being taken seriously by the snobbier and more culturally sophisticated queen bees at the fictional Constance Billard School for Girls.

But Gossip Girl, which ran more or less concurrently with Barack Obama’s first term and with the harshest years of the Great Recession, didn’t only differ from The O.C. in the scale of wealth its protagonists enjoyed. It also abandoned any pretense that the super-rich are meant to be relatable or sympathetic. Instead, over the course of six seasons, it cheerfully implicated its audience in the lavish, guilt-inducing spectacle of ruling class sociopathy. (“You know you love me,” Kristen Bell intoned at the start of every episode.) If The O.C. was about the right way to be rich, Gossip Girl implied that there is no right way — and that those who pursue entry into the upper tiers of the Manhattan elite, as so many characters do, invariably become at least as corrupt as those born to it.

At least from the vantage point of 2021, Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) is the show’s most likable character — which is a weird thing to say about a teenager who treats her family’s Polish immigrant maid like her personal servant, constantly threatens to report her to immigration services, and treats anyone from across the East River with almost eugenicist contempt. “Generations of breeding and wealth had to come together to produce me,” Blair proclaims to her merely middle-class rival Vanessa (Jessica Szohr). “I have more in common with Marie Antoinette than with you… the rabble are still rabble and they need a queen.” But in what should have been a career-making performance, Meester invests the unapologetically aristocratic Blair with a certain purity of purpose that distinguishes her from the other teens in her cohort: the nihilistic oligarch-spawn Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick), the vacuous trust funders Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford), and the transparently social-climbing Brooklynites Dan (Penn Badgley) and Jenny (Taylor Momsen) Humphrey. Chuck wants to drown the whole Upper East Side in his self-pity (and attempts two rapes in the pilot, for which the show never meaningfully holds him accountable). Serena and Nate want to enjoy their status without thinking about it; the Humphreys, and ultimately Vanessa, will do literally anything to belong to the club even as they resent the various obstacles it presents to them. (They also imagine themselves to be much poorer than they actually are, when by any reasonable standard they are at least upper-middle class). Only Blair is willing to name and defend the existing social order — a monstrous one, to be sure, but at least she’s honest about her place in it.

The titular Gossip Girl, voiced by Bell, is an anonymous, crowdsourced blog to which Upper East Side high schoolers send in anonymous tips about each other’s misdeeds, with chaos reliably ensuing. The show’s original cast of characters consists entirely of antiheroes who casually betray each other — sexually, academically, professionally, financially, you name it — and experience no remorse and few repercussions. Chuck pimps Blair to his creepy uncle without her foreknowledge in exchange for ownership of a hotel. Blair maliciously announces in front of a Yale rep that Serena spent time in a mental institution, not realizing that in fact it was Serena’s brother who did. Seemingly every character sleeps with every other character’s ex. No less than prestige dramas like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, Gossip Girl constantly tempts the audience into thinking its characters might be redeemable, only to delight in reminding us once again how they will never learn, grow, or change.

This cynicism is exemplified by Dan and Jenny’s father, Rufus Humphrey (Matthew Settle), who initially seems like the series’s counterpart to Sandy Cohen. Rufus, like Sandy, has lucked into a comfortable life — in this case, by having been the frontman of a Gin Blossoms-esque band in the pre-Napster era and moving enough $17 one-hit CDs to afford a loft in Dumbo (or perhaps Williamsburg; the show can never quite decide) and an art gallery on Bedford Avenue. He’s a seemingly nice guy making a living off art sales and royalties, and he’s straining to send his two kids to uptown private schools so they can pursue their creative dreams of writing and fashion, respectively — although at least part of his motivation is to bring them close to Serena’s mother Lily (Kelly Rutherford), a wealthy blonde heiress who superficially resembles Kirsten Cohen, and who is his former flame and eventually becomes his wife. We often see Rufus telling Dan and Jenny to remember where they came from (the upper tiers of the Brooklyn creative class, but never mind) and representing Gossip Girl’s conscience.

But Rufus is a fraud, and his devotion to Lily is as deeply corrupting as his children’s ambitions. In the fourth season, we learn that Lily once framed one of Serena’s teachers for statutory rape, forged an affidavit against him, and sent him to prison as part of a scheme aimed at getting Serena back into private school. Instead of leaving her in disgust, Rufus stands by Lily as she faces arrest, which turns out to be no big deal since the charges against her are quickly and inexplicably dropped. Similarly, when Rufus learns that Chuck once tried to rape Jenny, he gets furious about it (“Now I can keep you the hell away from my family!”) for approximately one episode, then forgets it ever happened. In the series finale, when he discovers that Dan has been Gossip Girl all along and has used that identity to (among other things) harass and humiliate his own sister, Rufus’s outrage is even briefer and more perfunctory. “I cannot believe you are the one responsible for all of this poison,” he starts, but softens when Dan argues, preposterously, that he “always tried to do the right thing, just like you taught me.” At one point in the series, Dan casually calls his father a sellout and a has-been, charges that sting since Rufus fails to create any music or art of value over the course of the series. At least Sandy Cohen was a good lawyer! Whatever, it doesn’t matter: if The O.C.’s characters are materially rewarded or punished depending on their behavior, everyone on Gossip Girl remains filthy rich and free to do whatever they want. They’re all morally exonerated for their most reprehensible actions. Once you’re in the club, you stay in the club.

To marathon the original Gossip Girl in the pandemic era (as many have, according to a trend piece by Maya Kosoff to which I myself contributed a quote; it also became the basis for an extremely stupid meme) is to watch this cycle play out so many times that it comes to feel like an extended metaphor for the lack of accountability that American elites take for granted. Gossip Girl is, after all, a show set in Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan (the billionaire mayor himself appears in the series finale) that was mostly produced after the federal government bailed out the financial services industry from the consequences of its own criminal recklessness. If the defining show of Obama-era liberalism was Parks and Recreation — with its running theme that well-intentioned technocrats can effectively serve the public whether it wants to be served or not — Gossip Girl captures the disillusioning reality that made some Obama-weary millennials angry enough to occupy Wall Street. And much as The O.C. anticipated the housing bubble years before it happened, Gossip Girl showed its characters kibitzing with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump years before anyone imagined either would get anywhere near the White House. (Indeed, by the end of the show, Nate Archibald has taken over a tabloid newspaper likely modeled on Kushner’s New York Observer.)

Gossip Girl also anticipated a state of pervasive, crowdsourced surveillance to which young people would voluntarily subject themselves out of narcissism. Its characters were able to do with flip phones and blogs what seemingly everyone now does with smartphones and social media — weaponize gossip, document their own social lives, and turn each other into characters in a publicly unfolding drama. The Gossip Girl account modeled petty, anonymous social commentary as an endless clout machine before practically anyone had heard of Twitter. For most of the show’s run, social media platforms were still marketed, and largely received, as forces for democracy and interconnectivity, but the showrunners understood early on how easily new technologies could be co-opted to police existing social hierarchies. It is this aspect of Gossip Girl, more than its merciless skewering of wealth, that seems to have carried over into the present reboot.

 

In a 2019 interview, Schwartz told Deadline that the then-forthcoming reboot of Gossip Girl would “subvert the paradigm of the original.” So far, this has proved accurate: if the previous decade’s Gossip Girl presented Upper East Side teenagers as cartoonishly devoid of scruples and actively seeking or defending privilege, today’s version instead offers up a generation hyper-conscious of its own privilege. The new Gossip Girl has been rightly praised for its multiracial cast and openly queer characters — and thanks to HBO, it also features more explicit sex. The cultural references and brands have been updated, and the characters now vie for influence on real-life social media platforms, above all Instagram. But none of these tweaks can really be called subversive in 2021, and to the extent the new Gossip Girl subverts the old one, it does so by redirecting its satirical gaze away from the wealthy teens and toward the precariously employed workers entrusted with educating them.

While the identity of Gossip Girl was a mystery until the very end of the original series, the new iteration establishes from the pilot that the titular account is being run by a small group of poorly-paid teachers at Constance Billard, whose ringleader is played by the 25-year-old ex-fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson (with its posts still narrated by Kristen Bell). The ostensible purpose of this exercise is to hold the spoiled students accountable for their actions, which include leaning on their plutocrat parents to get uncooperative teachers fired. But very quickly, operating an anonymous social media account to spy on high school students becomes its own addictive reward, and a creative outlet for Gevinson’s character, who is presented, perfectly, as an Iowa Writers’ Workshop dropout — a hapless millennial archetype previously developed by Gevinson’s real-life friend Lena Dunham on HBO’s Girls. “I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to make a difference in the world,” she says at one point, “but what if what I’ve been doing makes a bigger difference than being a writer ever could?” A rejection from the Paris Review seals her fate: stalking her students on social media is how she’ll make her mark. 

The new Gossip Girl often feels like two parallel shows: a melodramatic soap opera about rich zoomers, and a gleefully sadistic meta-commentary on that soap opera seen through the eyes of undervalued and bitter millennials. As something of an undervalued and bitter millennial myself, I unsurprisingly find the teacher scenes far more entertaining, and far more in keeping with the spirit of the original series. But politically, it’s hard to know what to make of the new Gossip Girl. Six episodes in, it still isn’t clear whether the teens’ apparent self-awareness is meant to be taken at face value or as a long con on the viewer.

Take Obie (Eli Brown), the scion of real estate developers who is embarrassed to be rich even by the standards of his classmates, and who participates in anti-gentrification protests in opposition to his parents’ luxury developments. At first glance, Obie is a sweet guy, if a bit insufferable in his commitments — but then, what well-meaning rich aspiring leftist isn’t? As he becomes involved in a love triangle with Julien (Jordan Alexander) and Zoya (Whitney Peak), a pair of feuding half-sisters, the latter accuses him of having only superficial principles. Wouldn’t it be better, Zoya asks him, if he just owned up to being a prince? Maybe, but what are the dramatic stakes of coming to terms with privilege? Whether or not Obie is oblivious, he’s still a rich kid trying to absolve himself of moral culpability through symbolic activism. Julien’s early arc concerns a similarly sterile crisis: whether to present her Instagram influencer brand as untouchable and flawless or relatable and unfiltered. Either way, she’s a rich teenager selling her lifestyle to an online fanbase. These may be plausible dilemmas for real-life Obies and Juliens, but they’re not exactly riveting TV.

The stakes surrounding the teachers are much clearer: in their zeal to hold the rich accountable, are they becoming precisely what they despise? Here Gossip Girl — both the social media account and the show about it — is reimagined as a means for the underpaid teachers to avenge themselves upon their social betters. The stunted, pitiful self-identity of these overworked and easily replaced workers is constituted in resentful opposition to the ruling class.

This makes for great drama, but the dynamic represented — spite as the engine of class politics — is straight-up reactionary. On HBO’s Gossip Girl, the wealthy teens are given the literal privilege of adolescence and the financial means to do whatever they feel like, while their tormentors making $40,000 a year engage in the kind of grotesque, prurient behavior that keeps the show watchable. None of the gossip this new cohort of Constance Billard students generates is remotely as scandalous as the weird social experiment their teachers are running on them. One almost feels sorry for the kids.

The tone the new Gossip Girl strikes is often preachy and moralistic, but not about class per se. The initial angst over the show’s perceived “wokeness” before it even came out wasn’t wholly misplaced, nor was it simply the latest iteration of the right’s tiresome backlash against so-called “cancel culture.” Instead, this is a show where we’re expected to care that Aki (Evan Mock), the personality-free son of a Rupert Murdoch-esque magnate, is outed by his father in front of a TV camera as gay rather than bi. While the intricacies of Aki’s queer identity are the subject of treacly histrionics, race is almost totally ignored on the show — this in spite of a cast considerably more diverse than that of the original Gossip Girl. It seems notable, for instance, that the princessy Julien has a white father, while the more arriviste Zoya has a black one (they share a late mother, seen briefly in old photographs, who was black), but in the first six episodes no one has indicated that they notice or care. Zoya’s father Nick (Johnathan Fernandez) occupies roughly the same role that Sandy Cohen and Rufus Humphrey did on their respective shows but is so vaguely defined that it’s hard to make a meaningful comparison. A show that could have interrogated the relationship between race and class has chosen, at least so far, to downplay both.

It remains to be seen whether Gossip Girl is fated to continue in the tradition of class critique of its predecessor. It’s too soon to tell whether it will punish or reward its characters for their misdeeds, or whether it has anything coherent to say about the rich at all. But the early signs point to no, and if that’s the case, it’s a disappointing third act for Schwartz. The Bush-era OC took a critical but fundamentally optimistic view of the American elite, while the Obama-era Gossip Girl cast an even more exclusive tier of the elite as an irredeemable parasite class; that the Biden-era Gossip Girl feels like a halfhearted restoration of the old order may have been inevitable, but still leaves one feeling empty and aimless, like so much of our present politics. As a satire of the wealthy, it has nothing on two other contemporary HBO series, Succession and The White Lotus, both of which know exactly what they’re trying to do. Despite its shiny surfaces, and the return of Bell’s iconic voicework, HBO’s Gossip Girl isn’t confident enough in itself to assure us that it knows we love it.

David Klion is a writer and an editor at Jewish Currents.

Copyright © The Drift 2021