Let's just get it out of the way upfront. On "NYC Prep," the private-school docu-style show that premieres on Bravo this week, everyone knows his or her role. PC is Chuck, Sebastian is Nate, Taylor is Jenny, Jessie is some parts of Blair, Camille is other parts of Blair with some Nelly thrown in, and Kelli is Penelope, probably, or maybe Hazel. No one is Dan. Definitely, no one is Serena. Thankfully, no one is Vanessa.
"I hate that show!'" Jessie shouts at a saleslady who has made the mistake of identifying the outfit she's trying on as "like 'Gossip Girl.' " It films on her block! It features her favorite, not-really-secret hangout spots! But really, it's unattainable, a finely edited version of her own life and that of her friends. How can you live to the fullest when life can't match up to fiction?
On "NYC Prep" (which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) though, these young people evince, above all, a need to best the unbestable, awkwardly accentuating character traits well past the point of parody. Much as with "The Real Housewives of New York," the kids featured here have the air of parvenus. Certainly, by whatever metrics the social hierarchy is determined, there are others who rank higher, likely thumbing their noses at this collection of would-bes and aren't-quites.
The teens attend several different private high schools (except for Taylor, who attends an academically selective public school and tries to straddle both worlds), none of which is named nor allowed filming.
Seeing these aspiring socialites in class would ruin the effect, though. Camille, in particular, has high academic aspirations -- "My life is basically planned. First I will go to Harvard, then I will be the business head of a genetics firm, and then at 40 I will have a husband and two girls" -- but her desire for a great SAT score is presented as a manifestation of her need for status, not excellence.
And on this show, it's the young women who steer the narrative, with the boys merely adding color. There are no true alpha males on "NYC Prep." PC has a honed cattiness, a deceptive social ease and delicious piped blazers, but seems bored by the idea of sexual conquest, except as a subject of conversation, a theoretical concern. In the premiere, he waffles over his feelings for Jessie, with whom he had an unexplained relationship some time in the past, and he asks the appealingly daffy Kelli to a meal, only to speak to her and Camille like a chiding uncle: "So you guys are . . . 12?"
According to scenes in the series preview special, which has been airing throughout the month, PC eventually focuses his energy on Taylor, mystified by her public-school ways. In fairness, Taylor is a willful enigma (to her trying-hard-but-flustered mom: "I'm not texting, I'm BBMing") who nakedly, unquestioningly craves what the rest of the cast purports to have: rank. She gathers her friends from both worlds in a swanky Japanese restaurant for a party, though the tension between those with expensive blowouts and those without freely runs both ways.
That night, Taylor catches the eye of Sebastian, with his Leif Garrett hair and eyebrows the size and plushness of suburban-den couches. In contrast to PC, Sebastian is a Valmont in the making, only interested in hooking up, which he speaks about with automaton-like focus -- which is to say, he might not be programmed to do or talk about anything else. "Sex is a big deal in the prep school scene," Sebastian notes. "Everyone's having sex with everyone. There are, like, naked pictures floating around of girls you had sex with or whatever."
But like most teens, Sebastian is unconvincing, both as a lothario and as someone reporting on teen lothario-dom. Same goes for PC, who's presented as the show's sage but is really just mistaking brusqueness for refreshing honesty.
At the end of the first episode, PC and Jessie share a sit-down at which Jessie halfheartedly offers to set PC up with a friend. He feigns disinterest, then tells Jessie to go ahead, curtly, throwing a bottle of water at her, then snapping his fingers as if she's his servant or assistant. It's not infuriating, just sad. He's a young kid wearing grown man's clothes who'll eventually become an old man in young man's clothes. The chafing is unbearable.