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TV Series Review

No matter how it's done, breaking up is awkward. Some talk it out, face-to-face. Some call. Some take the coward's way out and text.

Or, if you're NYC Prep's 15-year-old Taylor, you arrange for your new boyfriend to meet your old one at a dinner party.

"It was a little bit like a train wreck," says Taylor's friend, 17-year-old Camille, on Bravo's summer reality show. "You know something bad is going to happen, but you still have to watch."

NYC Prep feels, in some ways, very much like Camille's colliding locomotives. Every hour—almost every minute—something bad happens. Alas, I had to watch it. My editor asked me to.

If I had had a choice, though, I surely would've turned away.

Uptown Hurl
We Americans have two curious television obsessions: Wealth and ridiculing people. NYC Prep, essentially a reality-style spin-off of CW's buzz-generating Gossip Girl, allows viewers to wallow in both. On one hand, we're encouraged to salivate over the tony homes, cars and designer gear these kids flaunt. On the other, we're invited to hate the pampered, preening caretakers of such wealth—even if the objects of our fascinated ire are too young to legally drink.

Not that that little detail stops most of them. According to NYC Prep, teens wealthy enough to live on Manhattan's Upper East Side need follow no laws, boundaries or restrictions. The six youths we follow—five of whom go to what the show suggests are elite boarding schools—wander the city at their leisure, shopping at the trendiest boutiques, eating at the hippest restaurants and running with the fastest crowds.

In their city-soaked world, parents are either afterthoughts or absent enablers. One girl, 16-year-old Kelli, sees hers just once a week for dinner: They live full-time in the Hamptons while she shares a Manhattan flat with her brother. When Sebastian, another 16-year-old, has a heart-to-heart with his oft-invisible father, Dad suggests he "keep up with the teenager partying—as long as it doesn't get in the way" of his studies.

Bravo appears to have stepped into the vacuum these parents left behind, orchestrating and editing this tight cadre of teens so mercilessly that they've become over-moneyed caricatures of high school tropes: the teenage Lothario, the brittle overachiever, the ditz, the spoiled brat. Well, Bravo suggests they're all spoiled brats: Even Taylor, the one public school teen of the bunch and arguably one of the show's more relatable characters, constantly talks about how dating someone rich will help her social status. But some are propped up in more loathsome positions than others. PC, the designated bad boy, whines that Manhattan is a restrictive bubble one minute, then insults everyone who doesn't live on the "island"—from New Jersey to Texas—the next.

"I don't know many Mexicans in New York," he admits. "Except maybe delivery guys."

This may be the most unsympathetic six-pack of teens in television history.

Not My Kind of Town
Each episode is linguistically lambasted by a stream of obscenities, from f-words, s-words and even the c-word (bleeped out in the iTunes episodes I watched) to "b--ch," "a--" and "d--n." Some of these underage kids drink. (PC goes on a series of benders while vacationing in Mexico.) Conversations can be frank and uncomfortable. (PC asks, at a dinner party, how many of his companions are virgins.) And sexuality is at the core of many episodes. (PC's "preferences" are a source of constant debate, and several kids talk about how prevalent casual sex is amongst the prep school set.) The girls parade around in bikinis. The boys often go shirtless.

All that would be bad enough if this was a scripted show or a reality program stocked with consenting adults. What makes NYC Prep particularly heartbreaking is that these are children—real kids with supposedly real lives, no matter how pampered and spoiled those lives may appear. To me, that pushes this show past tawdry and edges it disturbingly close to child abuse. What child would willingly sign the requisite waivers to be mocked and ridiculed every week? What parent would subject their children to such treatment? What producer would orchestrate it all?

Perhaps these six "stars" thought they were going to being held up as sexy, fashionable role models for tweens and teens everywhere. They must've thought everyone would be jealous of their slick lives and layered loves. And some (very misguided) young viewers may actually feel that way.

But as Troy Patterson writes for Slate, "To enjoy the show fully ... the viewer must draw on his capacity for hating the strivers and the shoppers, and it can be a bit wearying to despise high school students so vividly. Is it wrong to wish emotional damage, physical harm and the humiliation of matriculating at a safety school on these mere children? It is. Emphatically so. But we're trying to be entertained here, and we must soldier on."

Salon.com's Heather Havrilesky adds, "Like public guillotining or foot binding, our obsession with rich teenagers will baffle future scholars as an extreme reflection of our culture's deepest streaks of envy and self-loathing. Just as we once might have satisfied our vengeful side by witnessing public executions, we now expunge our anxiety over striving but never reaching the top with these unnervingly insipid portraits of half-formed humans pickled in the poisoning influences of extreme wealth."

NYC Prep is indeed a train wreck of a show, one with real casualties: So show some respect—turn away.

Episodes Reviewed: June 30, July 7, 14, 2009


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