Some television shows touch our lives in serious ways. Here, writer Grace Campbell (author of Amazing Disgrace: A Book About "Shame") reveals how examining nostalgia we have for TV shows that we once loved can be a cathartic experience.
Mentally, I grew up in two places. One was the glittery and golden Orange County, California, where all residents are tanned and all houses are building versions of the Hadid family. The other was the Upper East Side, New York, where the teenage girls are supermodels, and the men are addicts beyond their years.
Although physically I grew up in neither and, rather, was raised in northwest London, as a teenager I learned all I thought I needed to know about life from television shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl. And if you were born in the '90s, you might have done the same.
In case you don't remember, The O.C. and Gossip Girl were TV shows that came out in the noughties and gained huge success among the teen community, and beyond—my mum would watch both shows with me. Both produced by the same people, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, The O.C. and Gossip Girl are set on different sides of the American coast, but their premises are virtually the same. These are teen dramas about rich, skinny white people who have affairs and tend to be addicted to things like prescription drugs.
These shows were, in their own ways, quite iconic. For instance, I still think of The O.C.'s Seth Cohen as the perfect man I hope to one day find. And I can still recall how much, aged 16, I wanted to be able to pull off a headband in the way that Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf could. (An aside—did you know that the actors who played Seth (Adam Brody) and Blair (Leighton Meester), were introduced by Josh Schwartz at a restaurant in Los Angeles and are now actually together IRL, happily married with a child? My heart can’t handle it.)
My early teenage years dropped in the mid-noughties when wearing low-rise jeans and vests on top of long sleeved T-shirts was the only thing. If you were there, you’ll know that in this time, we who were teenagers grew up heavily under the influence of The O.C. and Gossip Girl.
You see, when I started watching The O.C. on box set in 2006, I was barely a teenager. I had no idea when, if ever, I’d lose my virginity, and having a boyfriend felt like a pipe dream that I wasn’t organized enough to make happen. So my best friend Anna and I watched The O.C. and Gossip Girl, and we treated these shows as our bible, letting them tell us how we were supposed to live/using them as models for how our lives were supposed to be.
For instance, our attitude to New Year's Eve was formed by The O.C. In season one, there’s an episode set around New Year’s Eve where Ryan, the moody kid from Chino, is deciding whether or not to go to the big party his girlfriend is at. “You know what they say,” Hailey says to Ryan. “The way you spend New Year's Eve is the same way you’ll spend the rest of the year.”
Anna and I made this our motto. From the age of 14, we declared to ourselves that we must ALWAYS live New Year’s eve the same way we hope to live the next 12 months. And while we didn’t always get our New Year's snog, I admire our dedication to the TV shows we loved. We would have lived and died by the words of The O.C. and Gossip Girl.
It is tragically sweet.
Once these two masterpieces came to an end, my real adolescence started to take place. My energy was more Marissa Cooper/Serena Van Der Woodson than Blair Waldorf/Summer Roberts. I had sex with a lot of people, had many failed relationships, became addicted to drugs, later overdosing and realizing my life needed to "change." While I’m not blaming these television shows, the resemblance between some of my life events, bar the extreme wealth and different climates, was uncanny.
I’m 26 now, and recently went through my first big, catastrophically bad heartbreak. Heartbreak is rough, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Suddenly living alone, I decided to go back and re-watch The O.C. because I hoped that it would take me back to a time when I thought that Marissa Cooper’s struggles were as hard as it would get.
When I went back to The O.C., a place I used to mentally pretend was my home, I felt so nostalgic for a time when I believed in that world. I believed my life would be better if I lived in California. I believed that I didn’t need to go to school because I knew what I was going to be when I grew up—an O.C. girl. I believed that relationships would be as simple and straightforward as Summer and Seth’s was. I felt a deep, comforting nostalgia for that innocence.
The beauty of nostalgia is that for me it isn’t a desperate longing, it isn’t a feeling coming from a lacking in the present moment, but rather it’s a comforting reminder of a way I used to feel before the reality of life started to kick in.
When I re-watched The O.C., I watched it with my new lens, an adult lens, the realistic lens. I realized that, when I first watched this show as a pre-teen, I knew nothing. I felt smug knowing that now, over a decade on, I know more than these characters do about love and life, and becoming an adult.
This last year we’ve all been through loss and change, and I’ll be coming out of this pandemic knowing that I’m now an adult in full bloom. I’m embracing the changes, and I’m learning from my mistakes. And it’s nice to know that I’ll always have The O.C. to turn back to when I need to be reminded of all that.
Still missing the chic students of Constance Billard? Meet the cast of the Gossip Girl reboot, read the Gossip Girl books in order and check out our "where was Gossip Girl filmed?" NYC field guide featuring locations from the show.
Grace Campbell is a shame busting comedian and author from London.
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