It took approximately eight minutes for Lubbock native and Plano ex Chace Crawford to lose his shirt in the season-two premiere of Gossip Girl, the CW drama on which he plays a seductive student at an elite New York City prep school—though, technically speaking, the shirt started coming off in the opening scene, a heated tryst in the front seat of a Jaguar. Fans of Plano ex Hunter Parrish, who plays the son of Mary-Louise Parker’s character on the Showtime comedy Weeds, had to wait a little longer for their serving of eye candy, but their patience was amply rewarded: The second episode of the show’s recently completed fourth season featured the once gangly teenager revealing an unexpectedly ripped torso, while episode seven found him sweat-slicked and naked, having sex in the back room of a cheese shop.
Meet the Texas Boy Toy circa 2008—a breed that owes an obvious debt to Texas Boy Toys of recent vintage, such as Matthew McConaughey and former TCU student Chris Klein, but that also carries this tawdry tradition into what might politely be described as the age of the erotically charged older woman. Indeed, both Crawford, 23, and Parrish, 21, are paired in these shows with much older actresses: Crawford’s Nate Archibald is busy romancing a duchess, played by the 37-year-old Mädchen Amick, while Parrish’s Silas Botwin is involved with a beautiful single mother, played by the 38-year-old Julie Bowen. And it’s this deliberate tension, of adult men portraying sophisticated boys, that has afforded their performances an unexpected charge. Whereas McConaughey gives off an easygoing himbo vibe and Klein is so adorably wide-eyed and dopey that you can’t help but have a crush, Crawford and Parrish exert their sexual power much more calculatedly. Much like Jesse Metcalfe, who kick-started the cougar-prey trend on Desperate Housewives, they allow themselves to be ogled and used—by the camera, by their female co-stars, and by the audience.
What’s curious is that they’ve arrived at the same place from entirely different starting points. Crawford took the overnight-sensation route, graduating from Trinity Christian Academy, in Addison, and then setting off for Los Angeles. He quickly landed a throwaway role as a Speedo-clad male witch in The Covenant, then segued to his breakthrough part as Gossip Girl’s decent-hearted bed-hopper. He cemented his celebrity in 2007 with a gossip-rag-friendly romance with Carrie Underwood. Parrish, on the other hand, followed the more traditional child-actor route, growing up on camera in Weeds, which premiered in 2005, and playing variations on intelligent-and-moody in movies as disparate as Down in the Valley (2005) and RV (2006). (He graduated, in 2007, from the Texas Tech University Independent School District, which has allowed a number of young actors to enroll in distance learning programs and complete high school while continuing to work.)
But it wasn’t until recently that both performers began to hit their stride. Crawford drifted through the first season of Gossip Girl, vapid and pouty-lipped. More than a few of us stared at him and wondered if Zac Efron’s inexpressive clone had somehow escaped from the lab. Season two, however, has been another story entirely: The plotline involving Amick’s Catherine has allowed Crawford to play notes of mischief and manipulation—qualities that suit an actor whose bright-blue eyes can quickly narrow into mysterious laser-focused slits. He’s also been more comfortable in his own skin, running through scenes in his boxer shorts, flirting with everyone in sight (including—probably unintentionally—Francie Swift, who plays his mother). Parrish’s transformation has been even more dramatic. In the episode titled “Lady’s a Charm,” Parker’s pot-dealer mom opens a bathroom door to reveal a towel-clad, muscular young man with spiky blond hair who looks nothing like the skinny, floppy-haired boy we knew from previous seasons. Parrish then spends a number of subsequent episodes in assorted states of undress, and he generates unexpected heat opposite Bowen, partly because he seems so aggressively determined to assert himself as a sexual presence.
Do these young men have what it takes to break out of the glutted pack of teen and twentysomething hotties? Can either of them really act? My guess is that Parrish has the stronger chops (see “The Dear Hunter”), though neither has been challenged thus far. Of course, talent isn’t everything, certainly not when it comes to sustaining a career in twenty-first-century Hollywood. And, to their credit, Crawford and Parrish seem smart enough to make choices that should appeal to both an adolescent and a menopausal fan base. To wit: As season four of Weeds was winding down, in August, Parrish showed up on Broadway, taking over the role of Melchior in the musical Spring Awakening—a part that requires him to drop trou and simulate sex onstage. For his part, Crawford is rumored to be succeeding 42-year-old Patrick Dempsey as “the face” of the Versace fashion house.
My own advice to these guys: Don’t pull a Jesse Metcalfe, who took an unfortunate step backward by turning up as a teen lothario in the juvenile John Tucker Must Die. Don’t pull a Chris Klein, who revealed you can play a wide-eyed male ingenue only so many times before it ceases being sexy and starts being gross. And don’t be afraid to play a villain, because it’s the surest way to get critics to take you seriously. (Just ask Matt Damon, who—until he turned up in The Talented Mr. Ripley—seemed destined to fade into nice-guy oblivion.)