At the height of Gossip Girl’s popularity in 2009, Bravo premiered NYC Prep, a series billed as a real-life counterpart, featuring real teens attending prep school in New York City, all of whom do their best to map their personalities into the familiar archetypes established by the source material: rich playboy, ruthless overachiever, etcetera. A hearty dose of truth that feels absent from Bravo’s current reality TV offerings, NYC Prep was sold to its participants as a docu-drama—not quite a documentary, but not reality either. The fun, now rewatching it many years later, is in seeing the teens try to navigate that murky directive by playing the parts they were assigned.
There’s Jessie, an ambitious blonde with an unwavering dedication to Operation Smile, a charity organization that is mentioned roughly every episode, and her “best friend,” P.C., an obnoxious boy with whom she is definitely in love. Camille, a precocious high school junior, is hellbent on attending Harvard and is also dedicated to questionable headband choices; she spends the duration of the eight episodes attempting to snivel her way onto the board of Operation Smile to pad her nascent resumé and fulfill the destiny she’s laid out for herself.
Of the two leads, Jessie is by far the most ruthless, but also, she makes me a little sad. Her relationship with P.C., the grandson of the Secretary of Commerce under Nixon, looks like the kind of high school relationship that feels earth-shattering in the moment, replete with soaring highs and crushing lows. Consider the scene halfway through the series that finds Jessie waiting for P.C. at a Dean and DeLuca. When he finally shows up, offering his exhaustion as an excuse for his lateness, she screams with the rage of a fed-up housewife: “Really, when I’m just tired, I CALL MY FRIENDS.” Jessie, babe, it is not that deep, but I get it. P.C. inspires rage by simply existing as he is at the point in time—a very wealthy teenager who flirts just enough to mesmerize his unwitting victim, which allows space for him to be a jerk.
Other, lesser characters are still just as engaging. Sebastian, a 15-year old French-speaking sophomore with a floppy, mid-career Bieber haircut, ruthlessly plays teen girls with the confidence of a man at least 10 years his senior. Kelli, also 15, lives with her brother in the city while her parents maintain their residence in the Hamptons? And Taylor, the only one on this program who appears to have a modicum of sense, is, naturally, the only one who attends public school—a fact that the other denizens of NYC Prep discuss with derision that feels mostly like they’re being goaded by producers to do so.
Perhaps watching teenagers play-acting at being adults depresses you, but for me, I find it invigorating! Particularly when the teens in question navigate the complicated waters of infatuation, manufactured or otherwise. A half-baked love triangle between Sebastian, Kelli, and Taylor provides the thrust of the narrative arc over the eight episodes. It involves multiple “dates,” which are highly staged affairs at dark restaurants where the teens sip water out of wine glasses. There is nothing more chilling than watching a 15-year-old girl deadpan that she’s “just not interested in a real relationship” with the world-weary air of a Real Housewife, but also, nothing nearly as entertaining.
Having not been a part of the New York City prep school scene and having very little experience with teenagers that act like adults in their mid to late 30s, I cannot say with certainty if this show is accurate or not, but in my heart, I want to believe. As nostalgia fare for those who watched the show when it originally aired, it’s great television, but what is most captivating about it is the glimpse into a specific slice of New York social life—teenagers so accustomed to wealth and material comfort that they seem incapable of functioning in any other milieu other than their own. Watching rich people simply be rich without any filter is a pleasant distraction, but for some reason, it’s more reprehensible in adults. Teenagers should know better, but, surprise, they don’t! Schadenfreude, which is a helpful lens through which to view all reality television, is surprisingly absent in this context. It’s difficult to feel sorry for teenagers whose issues are laughably irrelevant and extremely small, but their vast wealth might obscure the fact that they’re still teenagers experiencing the full breadth of human emotions.
Unlike the women on Real Housewives of New York, whose personalities now seem scripted by Bravo’s producers, the NYC Prep teens appear, simply, real. Consider Jessie and P.C.’s relationship, which pre-dates the show. Viewers don’t quite know the details of their history, but from what both say in on-camera confessionals, it seems that they were romantically involved at some point, but are no longer. Jessie’s unrequited feelings for P.C. manifest in a strange maternalistic impulse; she wants to take care of him because she (rightly) believes that he is incapable of taking care of himself. This kind of attention is really just redirected affection—unreciprocated feelings with nowhere else to go. It’s a nice exercise to think that this impulse is something that people eventually grow out of, but watching Jessie pretend to not care about what P.C. was doing in Mexico on spring break while asking him why he didn’t call her to check in made me feel something akin to sympathy.
If feeling sorry for rich teens doesn’t do it for you, then watching NYC Prep as an anthropological study of the curious fashion trends of 2009 is a better exercise, where superfluous scarves and round-toed stilettos reign. Camille’s dedication to the aforementioned headbands is probably a producer’s attempt to make viewers associate her with Blair Waldorf, but marveling at the wide variety of head adornments available in 2009 is a nice walk down memory lane. But Jessie’s dedication to channeling the aesthetic of a woman much older than her is what really seals the deal for me. A week after my rewatch, I’m still thinking about her tireless dedication to bracelet stacks—a tangle of David Yurman, a Cartier love bracelet, and some inexplicably large bangles. Though I don’t know what Jessie did with herself after the show (except marrying a man named Jason Brown), I like to imagine her tanned forearm banging emphatically on a desk somewhere in a conference room, slamming the phone down after berating a group of interns.
NYC Prep is fluff of the highest quality—escapist fare that does what the best reality television does, which is to remove the viewer from their own existences and plop them, for a few hours, into someone else’s.