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Jason Notte

Jason Notte

Posted: September 26, 2008 12:55 PM

Economics of Spoiled Teen Dramas Fundamentally Sound


"Our entire economy is in danger." -- President Bush

"XOXO" -- Gossip Girl

Lehman Brothers have become America's least favorite siblings, AIG workers are now the equivalent of Post Office employees and the nation has set bail for its economy at $700 billion. If you were a character in modern teen dramas, you would know nothing of this.
In response to the ongoing economic crisis, the people at MTV, the CW and the characters from Gossip Girl, Privileged, 90210 and The Hills have issued a joint statement: "Whatever."

Since the the original Beverly Hills 90210 debuted on Oct. 4, 1990, the U.S. economy has swelled on the backs of a tech boom, an ensuing real estate boom and an influx of foreign investment. By the time the latest incarnation of 90210 appeared this month, Census figures indicate that the median household income in that zip code has risen from $97,972 in 1990 to $112,572 a decade later. It's no wonder the kids of West Beverly have had the commoners of Melrose Place evicted and replaced with the heirs and heiresses of Manhattan and Palm Beach.

If Dawson lived on the CW today instead of the WB of the late 90s, he and his friends would be priced right off of the creek. Felicity would have to cut her hair not as a ploy to boost ratings, but to sell it for a Marc Jacobs bag.

"It's the makings of a plutocracy," says Allan Ornstein, professor of education at St. John's University and author of Class Counts: Education, Inequality and the Shrinking Middle Class. "Our founding fathers rebelled against this nobility class, and I would argue that today's super rich are richer than the old nobility class."

While the thought of men in tri-cornered hats storming an Upper East Side prep school and bayonetting anyone with the last name Waldorf or van der Woodsen is disconcerting at best, that Gossip Girl considers a family living in a Williamsburg loft "middle class" is also cause for concern. In 2005, nine out of 10 Americans earned $117,000 or less while 0.01 percent earned $16 million or more, according to Ornstein's research. As the economic crisis deepens and this divide widens, it seems those on the winning end are getting the more of the air time and sex scenes.

"Are we seeing more of this stuff now because of the shrinking middle class and the emphasis in our political discourse -- the Sarah Palin convention speech, for example -- of these dichotomies?" says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Perhaps, but showing rich people as soulless, spoiled and really evil and maggot-ridden is really an old American tradition."

Much as Americans have loved jeering on a Depression-era Mr. Potter for making life a little less wonderful for the residents of Bedford Falls and cheering on the Dallas and Dynasty catfights as Wall Street weathered Black Monday, today's viewers have unburdened themselves by wishing tears and misery upon the hedge fund-hatched demon spawn of My Super Sweet 16. Thus, as the face of new money has grown younger and glossier through trust funds and mommy and daddy's position on the housing bubble, so have the objects of viewers' vitriol.

"What I think these new shows have done is take that natural antipathy we have toward people who have a lot of money or, we think, more than they deserve, and unify it with that old genre that 90210 started," Thompson says. "What's happened with Gossip Girl and all this MTV stuff is that they have melded two genres -- the one of young, attractive people and the one of resentment toward the wealthy -- and held these characters up there for us to mock.

Such schadenfreude is near impossible when you have to worry about characters being homeless, half-dead alcoholics or saddled with homework as they were in My So Called Life, or struggling to make ends meet by running a restaurant it seemed only they and their family ate in on Party of Five. Plus, given American television's Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous-fueled tendency to flaunt it when it's got it, the advent of an era in which even statesmen use the word "bling" was inevitable.

"We live in what David Reasoner from Harvard University calls the 'other-directed society,' where it's very important what others think about us, this display of wealth," Ornstein says.

It took Darren Star, the creator of 90210 and the genre that followed, to figure that out wrap his very special episodes in sugary pills of excess on Sex and the City. Though Carrie and Co. were beyond the demographic of the teen dramas of that era, their cabs, Cosmos and Jimmy Choos did more to influence the genre than Brian Krakow ever did.

They made both writers and viewers realize that, through an ensemble of incredibly spoiled, seemingly soulless kids, you can get away with all sorts of things that would be implausible in a middle-class setting. Sure the cash and couture help, but you also need a lot of free time to contemplate yourself and how you cheated with your brother's girlfriend.

"It's like if you took a daytime soap opera and accelerated it by 5,000 times," Thompson says. "This is going to be 200-proof gossip, and the way they get it is to eliminate all of those other inconveniences, like occasionally having to give lip service to making a living."

Much like the economy it mirrors, however, teen drama's bubble can burst. A prime example was The O.C., which was the first of its kind to blend Sex and the City style with unfettered drama. Though hailed early in its half life, the show burned itself out in less than four seasons. The newest 90210 may meet a similar fate, as its fossilized Dylan-Kelly plot points and antiquated writing make it look almost quaint alongside the sleeker and more salacious Gossip Girl. Perhaps that's for the best, as Brenda, Brandon and Dylan never had to face the kind of economic malaise and pent-up frustration that has helped turned public ire against heiresses including Paris, Nicole and the Kardashian of your choice.

"Fuck 'em," Ornstein says. "Why should someone start at third base when so many people are struggling just to get up to bat?"

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