Much has been written about how we see New York City on the big screen (here’s a recent example), and for good reason – the city has, for decades, been defined in the public consciousness by the gritty crime dramas and sunny rom-coms that used Gotham as their background. But what about the small screen? From Sex and the City and Friends to The Sopranos and NYPD Blue, many a classic television series has made New York its home (even if they mostly shot in studios out west).
In her new book Binge Watching New York (out now from Abrams Books), author Marion Miclet explores the nooks and crannies of the New York we know from the teevee (and she performs similar geographic archaeology in its companion book, Binge Watching London). In this excerpt, she takes a look at the vision of the Upper East Side presented by two contemporary favorites.
FROM “BINGE WATCHING NEW YORK”
Gossip Girl and Odd Mom Out, although quite different in tone, style and target audience, are two shows that could almost be related. As tried and true Upper East Siders, their main protagonists offered a close-up of the habits and rules that still prevail in the most aristocratic neighborhood of New York City, the last surviving holdout for the Old Continent in the New World. The teen drama crossbred with soap opera premiered on the CW just before the 2008 financial crisis, while the acerbic Bravo sitcom based on the life of “underprivileged rich,” Jill Kargman, debuted in 2015. This terrible twosome gave us some of the most satirical portrayals of the wealthiest inhabitants of the Upper East Side, whose antics were both mesmerizing and revolting. If Gossip Girl’s debut was highly aspirational,just as the stock market plummeted, the ratings took a parallel nosedive and it became almost shameful to declare oneself a fan. Yet,when the show ended, it bowed out with unwavering dignity, like a bankrupt duchess obstinately refusing to part with the family jewels. Today, the teen drama has become such a major player in New York pop culture history that there are talks ofa revival. Having learned a lesson or two from its “sister show,” Odd Mom Out favored over-the-top, self-deprecating humor, on par with the showrunner’s bigger-than-life personality.
Whether it be in comedy or drama, deep diving into the life of the rich and famous as a narrative device is not a recent phenomenon–these series exist alongside a well-established literary tradition exemplified by The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton, 1920) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe, 1987). As companion shows,Gossip Girl and Odd Mom Out not only covered the same zip codes, when binge-watched together they come off as a lowbrow sociocultural study of the Upper East Side. They demonstrated how the influence of the conservative elite endures, with “old money” domineering over the vulgar “nouveau riche.” Coincidentally, while Gossip Girl’s main character was named Serena van der Woodsen, Odd Mom Out devoted an entire episode to Jill’s in-laws’ decision to reclaim the aristocratic prefix “von” for their last name, after discovering long-lost (Nazi!) Austrian relatives (S01E02). Cecily von Ziegesar (yet another “von”), the author of the Gossip Girl Y.A. novels that served as source material, graduated from the prestigious Upper East Side prep school Nightingale-Bamford in the 1980s. The creator of Odd Mom Out has made a career out of ridiculing her beloved neighborhood, which she has never left (she jokes that she lives in up-and-coming “DURITO, for Down Under Roosevelt Island Tram Overpass”). These two amateur New York anthropologists know the codes of high-society firsthand, having constructed their identity from their own reflection in this hypnotic mirror. By focusing on the intimate stories of a bunch of spoiled teenagers or placing a microscopic lens on the local “momzillas,” they used the same “scientific” protocol of participant observation, where an outsider character at the center of all the intrigues contributes a precious insider’s analysis of a territory both familiar and unknown. Outsider number one “Lonely boy” Dan, the Brooklynite and secret Gossip Girl blogger, was played by Penn Badgley, and the titular odd mom out (a riff on the expression “odd man out”) was portrayed by Jill Kargman herself. So, let’s take part in the participant observation experiment by exploring the Upper East Side highlands to ferret out the hideouts of this most exotic tribe.
If New York is a jungle, then the area north of E 59th Street occupies a special place in the ecosystem. We find our first objects of study marking their territory along the sidewalks of Park Avenue, decked out in all the trappings of wealth and the confidence that comes with it: meet the local momzillas. They are easy to spot in their natural habitat: always impeccably groomed, especially on their way to the gym, they travel in packs. Gossip Girl and Odd Mom Out presented two fine specimens: Lily van der Woodsen (Kelly Rutherford) and Brooke Von Weber (Abby Elliott). Lily, the divorced mother of two, was more absorbed by her love life than her children’s welfare. While the family penthouse was being refurbished, she moved into the Lotte New York Palace, our first stop, located just on the edge of the Upper East Side. “The Palace” is an imposing neo-Renaissance Italian hotel made out of several brownstone townhouses overshadowed by modern glass towers. It makes perfect sense that the Gossip Girl crew filmed there: the interior courtyard that gives onto Madison Avenue was the ideal place to orchestrate all the comings and goings, indiscretions and betrayals that were an integral part of the show. We continue our tour by dropping in at the local branch of Prada, where during off-peak hours you will run into delusional momzillas attempting to squeeze into clothes designed for their “pre-baby bodies.” A fashion and art enthusiast, Lily acquired the “Prada Marfa 1837 mi” mural designed by Elmgreen and Dragset and married Bart Bass (Robert John Burke) at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (S01E18). The peace and quiet of the galleries is a nice respite for the hyperactive Upper East Side socialites who are expected to attend many functions: auctions, vernissages, charity galas, and of course the prom night for N.A.C.H.O (New Yorkers Against Childhood Obesity) hosted by Brooke (S01E10).
For the momzilla sylphs, these public events require intense preparation. First, haircare is of utmost importance. If you are not genetically endowed with a perfect blonde coiffe, follow Lily and Brooke as they rectify Mother Nature’s faux-pas: book an appointment with celebrity hairstylist Julien Farel, who frequently weaves his magic touch on Ivanka Trump (she made a brief appearance in Gossip Girl, S04E06). Now for the skin. Kelly Rutherford is a fan of Crème de La Mer, a line of expensive skincare sold at Bluemercury, the high-end beauty stores featured in Jill Kargman’s show (S02E08). Not forgetting diet and fitness, the momzillas’ motto is “no bread!”, so let them eat cake at Noglu, the patisserie that has made gluten intolerance (by birth or by choice) their business. As you will then need to work off all those carbs, head for SoulCycle. The elitist, addictive workout appeared in the pilot episode of Odd Mom Out under the name SoulWheelz as another rite of passage typical of Upper East Side society. Jill quickly learned that to deserve a spot on the best bike, you must bring yourA-game, plus the appropriate attire. Opt for the sporty momzillas’ pelage of choice, leopard-print yoga pants and “energy bras” from athleisure empire Lululemon, where the lightweight jacket will certainly lighten your wallet. After all that exercise, don’t forget to rehydrate. Since water is not regarded as the best fountain of youth in this part of Manhattan, choose another nectar by asking yourself the ultimate question: what would Gwyneth Paltrow do (WWGPD)? The star momzilla par excellence is an advocate of juice cleanses, so start a week-long high liquid intake at Juice Generation. Finally, remember that in the Upper East Side the adage “beauty comes from within” is followed to a tee, but has nothing to do with the goodness of the soul. In Odd Mom Out we were introduced to some extreme puritanical cleansing rituals: fasting (Brooke’s “non-eating lunch” with Stella McCartney, S02E02); colonics (if you are curious, plunge into Rachel’s Water of Life); and vaginoplasty, the procedure Brooke wanted to undergo to revamp her sex life (S01E09). Therefore, the iconic phrase borrowed from the book of ethology, “survival of the fittest,” takes on another meaning in the Upper East Side jungle…
Excerpted from Binge Watching New York. Copyright © 2019 by Marion Miclet. Reprinted with permission of Abrams Books. All rights reserved.