XOXO, Ruling Class: Gossip Girl, The O.C., and the New Gilded AgeBreaking News
tags: inequality, popular culture, wealth, television, 2000s
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 Nickel (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.
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.
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