On the 10 year anniversary of the spoilt New York teen drama, we dissect the parallels with its West Coast predecessor
Back in February, we mourned the 10-year anniversary of the end of teen TV’s most game-changing show: The O.C. Just seven months after The O.C.’s ridiculous finale, then-31-year-old creator Josh Schwartz had a crack at dominating the landscape of teen TV once again with Gossip Girl. And, all things considered, he did a pretty good job. Gossip Girl overall received way less viewers than The O.C. ever did, but it was well-reviewed, managed to last for six seasons, and became a key reference point in our collective cultural consciousness. Even now, a decade later, there aren’t many people under 30 who can say or see the letters “XOXO” without whispering “Gossip Girl” immediately afterward.
Gossip Girl took The O.C.’s narrative of poor-kid-tries-to-fit-in-with-rich-kids from Orange County to New York. It starred Leighton Meester, Blake Lively, Ed Westwick, and a bunch of other now iconic 00s names as a load of Upper East Side teenagers who go to social events and fuck each other over via a gossip website run by the eponymous and anonymous Gossip Girl. Penn Badgley and Taylor Momsen play a brother and sister who are poor but manage in their own ways to weedle in on the rich kid action. The show is funny, fast, fun to look at, stylish, outrageous. It’s petty and ridiculous and references pop culture. So far, so similar to The O.C. Or so you might think. Because while The O.C. and Gossip Girl might share some themes – cool dads, rich kids, music, social occasions, fraud, holidays, poor outsiders – and while a fool could call Gossip Girl The O.C. on the East Coast, there is one key difference: Gossip Girl has absolutely no heart.
The key to The O.C.’s charm is watching flawed people grow and learn to forgive and love one another. The key to Gossip Girl’s appeal, however, is watching fundamentally flawed, petty people relentlessly abuse each other until they all get what they want. Where in The O.C. even Luke and Julie manage to evolve, in Gossip Girl, nobody does for more than an episode. That isn’t to say it’s bad: they are two different shows with distinctly different messages, but in the shadow of The O.C., I could never truly love Gossip Girl the same way. It leaves me cold. Its parallels, of which there are many, only serve to show that Gossip Girl at times feels like a soulless, New York-based parody of The O.C. Here is the evidence.
THE POOR BOYS
The premise of both The O.C. and Gossip Girl is, all things considered, identical: an underprivileged and misunderstood boy finds himself suddenly thrust into a world of gross wealth and charity galas. In The O.C. it’s Ryan Atwood, a well-meaning but accidentally violent sweetie from Chino who is adopted by a kind lawyer and his family when his mom abandons him. Throughout the series he grows as a person, stops punching, and manages to be nice to everyone while still remaining critical of the world around him.
In Gossip Girl it’s Dan Humphrey, an ungrateful little brat with a chip on his shoulder who truly believes he’s a) a good writer and b) a good person. Ryan sees the good in everyone, and despite his troublesome temper, is selfless to a fault. Dan, however, is the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual fuckboy. He never grows, never learns, hurts everyone around him and is (spoiler) apparently actually Gossip Girl, so he’s also a raging sociopath. Ryan earns his way into that world, and Dan “writes” himself in, tricking and hurting everyone. And that’s our hero.
The O.C.’s Sandy Cohen is the greatest TV Cool Dad of all time. He is the strong, kind, beta patriarch we all wish we had. He takes charge. He loves. He adopts wayward children. He quips. The only time he truly messes up is when he goes a little bit evil because he’s so desperate to build a hospital and help the world. Gossip Girl’s equivalent might look like a cool dad (he has hair) dress like a cool dad (he wears ugly necklaces) and act like a cool dad (he’s a “musician”) but he is overwhelmingly dead behind the eyes. I am 95 per cent sure he doesn’t actually love his children, which is fair, because I wouldn’t either. But as cool as he may be, he does not have the never-ending well of love and banter in his heart that Sandy Cohen does, so it’s a no from me.
Gossip Girl loves occasion-themed episodes. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day. They are lavish, full of family feuds, insanely dramatic, and despite attempting to claw back a little bit of familial love, are for the most part pretty empty. Its love of occasions is not unlike The O.C., only as well as also featuring all of those occasions, The O.C. has Chrismukkah.
While The O.C. is not immune to some holiday drama (or drama ever), what Gossip Girl is missing at the holidays is some heart. Chrismukkah, a mash-up of Christmas and Hanukkah, is by its very nature wholesome. It represents love, family, compromise. Two cultures merging. The first Chrismukkah episode sees the Cohens wholeheartedly throw themselves into making Ryan feel welcome. Ultimately, at the end of holiday episodes, the characters in The O.C. come out as better, closer people.
THE TAKE HOME MESSAGE
When I watch The O.C., I take home the message that it doesn’t matter who my parents are, because my family is who I make them. That we can all be forgiven if we learn from our mistakes. That the good guys always get there in the end and the rich, cruel people will lose. Overwhelmingly in Gossip Girl it seems to me that the message is: fuck everyone over in the pursuit of what you want and not only will you get everything, but you will be forgiven and wildly successful.
In this sense, Gossip Girl might not actually be soulless, but a subversion of The O.C.’s message that the rich are bad and background doesn’t matter. It’s smarter than we thought; an entirely intentional meditation on the way that, in life, the good guys never win, and the bourgeoisie get away with committing horrible crimes against each other and also everyone else.
THE EMO SIBLING
Something that makes The O.C. so good is Seth Cohen, glib nerd and classic early-00s emo heartthrob in striped jumpers moping to Death Cab For Cutie. Gossip Girl does not have that, but it does have its parallel. It’s just Taylor Momsen, pre-and-during the Pretty Reckless era, in a classic late-00s emo getup complete with straight fringe and raccoon eyes. Only she doesn’t appear to actually like music and she never has any jokes or funny tantrums, she’s a bit evil, and she also hurts everyone in her life constantly. She’s a proper piece of shit, where Seth Cohen is only ever bad in that he’s a dumb nerd with an inferiority complex who wants to shag everyone.
THE MMM, WHATCHA SAY
The O.C. was responsible for one (and many) of the most iconic music moments of all time. When Alexandra Patsavas, music supervisor and stone cold legend, hilariously set the shooting of Ryan’s brother Trey to ‘Dear Sister’ by Imogen Heap, she made history and inspired a decade of jokes, memes, and even an SNL skit starring Andy Samberg. Gossip Girl then referenced that moment in an overly-dramatic Thanksgiving dinner scene with ‘Whatcha Say’ by Jason Derulo playing quietly while everyone has a passive aggressive fight about secrets, sex, and money. Or something. The only mistake they made, as with most of the show, is that it wasn’t funny.
When The O.C. was unceremoniously cancelled, it opted to go out with a bang and subvert most conventions of TV. After descending into full ridiculous self-awareness throughout the season, the ending really starts two episodes prior, with a disaster episode, a classic soap hallmark. In the finale, Ryan walks around the remains of the destroyed Cohen house remembering his origins. We then leap years forward to see everyone’s futures neatly wrapped up in just a few minutes; marriage! Children! Careers! In the show’s closing moments, Ryan sees a child and offers him help, thus completing the show’s natural cycle of family and friendship and love. He is the hero. He is Sandy. We are all so lucky to see it.
Gossip Girl tried to do that, too. Everyone fights and bickers until the very last second, Rachel Bilson (The O.C.'s Summer Roberts) has a cameo, Dan is revealed to be Gossip Girl and nobody actually murders him over it. In fact, when we skip five years ahead in an echo of The O.C.’s finale, he’s marrying Serena! Nate might be the Mayor of New York City! Chuck and Blair are married! Every single one of these evil people is successful, and the passing of the torch moment comes when a new Gossip Girl introduces herself as a new bunch of little shits are seen attending Constance. Everyone is awful and everyone wins, and that, viewer, is the message of Gossip Girl.
AN ADDENDUM: DAN HUMPHREY IS NOT GOSSIP GIRL
Look, it’s not strictly a parallel, but if I don’t get this off my chest I will never be OK: I mean, honestly, @ Josh Schwartz, what the fuck? If I had the time I would compile a list of every single time Dan could 100 per cent not have been Gossip Girl, even if he tried. And if he could or truly was, he is not our hero. Who fucks over his own sister like that? Who is that evil and dumb? Gossip Girl should always have been anonymous, inhuman even; an omnipresent, mysterious force judging the goings-on of everyone at Constance. Or Dorota. Or Jenny! But not Dan Humphrey. And if it was, why does the narrative still want me to root for him? What! The! Fuck!