Josh SCHWARTZ was shooting the finale of "The O.C." in Pasadena last season when he began to get an inkling about the potential of his next project.
"All these teenagers from the neighborhood had gathered, upset the show was ending," said Schwartz, the young writer-producer who created the gauzy Newport Beach teen soap. "They said, 'You have to do another show for us.' "
In fact, Schwartz told them, he was starting work on a television series based on the popular "Gossip Girl" books.
"They all started screaming," he recalled. "I thought, whoa -- this is deep."
Set in the rarefied milieu of Manhattan's Upper East Side, the novels by Cecily von Ziegesar have an ardent following among teens, who lap up the tales of a set of pampered private-school students and the anonymous Gossip Girl blog that snarkily documents their misdeeds. That built-in fan base -- according to its publisher, the 11-book series has more than 4.5 million copies in print -- combined with Schwartz's reputation as a purveyor of smart, sexy teen drama, has helped generate feverish anticipation for the CW television show long before its Wednesday premiere.
After living through the rollercoaster ride that was "The O.C.," Schwartz and his fellow executive producer Stephanie Savage are trying to stay philosophical about the buzz, even as they fend off perceptions that the show will simply be "The O.C.: Manhattan."
"One of the first things we talked about was how do we create separation, because the obvious comparisons would be to 'The O.C.,' " he said. "We wanted to make sure as writers there was enough new ground to explore."
The hyper-speed of popular culture has already ensured that the "Gossip Girl" denizens reside in a world light years away from the one portrayed on "The O.C.," whose 2003 pilot featured a character using (gasp!) a pay phone. On the CW drama, the teens idly flip open their sleek, candy-colored cellphones to check out the latest Gossip Girl postings. (The anonymous blogger is voiced by "Veronica Mars" star Kristen Bell, who gleefully narrates the exploits.)
The "Gossip Girl" characters are worldlier (and wealthier) than their West Coast counterparts. The progeny of aristocratic New York families, they can converse fluently about art and culture and roam the city's grand edifices as if they were ambling through their backyards. Schwartz and Savage said they also drew from more lofty influences: The wry observations of high society in "The Age of Innocence" and "The Great Gatsby," as well as the decadence depicted in Sofia Coppola's film "Marie Antoinette."
"Not that we put ourselves in the same literary category, but it's the same kind of storytelling," Savage said. "The stories of young people in wealthy circumstances trying to be good and find themselves are endlessly fascinating."
Blake Lively, who plays Serena van der Woodsen, a popular girl trying to reform her wild ways, recalls that she was one of the only girls at Burbank High School who wasn't reading the "Gossip Girl" novels. She remembered watching in amazement as her friend paged through one of the books under her desk during an AP Spanish midterm.
"I was like, 'Why did you do that? The midterm is important!' " recalled the 19-year-old during a break between shooting in Brooklyn Heights on a recent morning. "And she was like, 'Yeah, but I don't want anyone to spoil what happens for me!' So I knew there was something catchy about them."
But along with the books' popularity has come sharp condemnation from parents who complain the series promotes narcissism, casually depicts underage drinking and sex and glamorizes the kind of bad behavior that has landed stars such as Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears on the cover of tabloids. Critics are now raising similar concerns about the youth-aimed television series.
Schwartz and Savage insist they've taken pains to show the consequences of such recklessness in the program. They've also amplified the role of the Humphreys, a middle-class family that acts as a foil to the preening socialites.
Still, for the series to ring true to teenagers, "you have to write them realistically, which means occasionally they are going to do things that aren't necessarily recommended by the Board of Family Viewing," Schwartz said.
The characters, decked out in high fashion, drink with bored élan. In the pilot, Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) drags her boyfriend Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) into her bedroom for an impromptu coupling during a party hosted by her mother. One of the main characters has a predilection for date rape. The debauchery and conniving is reminiscent of "Cruel Intentions," the 1999 movie set in similarly wealthy New York environs that was based on the French novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."
Penn Badgley, who plays Dan Humphrey, the good boy from the wrong part of town, said he was worried about the show's salaciousness until he read the script for the third episode.