September 23, 2007

Fall 2007 TV Roundup: Gossip Girl

Posted in Television at 11:20 pm by Calico Jack

Take six obscenely wealthy, narcissistic, preening teenagers with identity issues and put them in a private school in NYC’s Upper East Side. Add a group of vacuous parents to give their children something to rebel against. Mix two cases of attempted rape for spice, and a raft of underage drinking (at hotel bars, no less!) and smoking for reality. Cook under high pressure for forty-five minutes, being careful to remove any humor bubbles from the mix. Top it off with an omniscient narrator who refers to everyone by their first initial only and you have the CW’s new show Gossip Girl, an “I can’t believe it’s this trashy” thematic descendant of the O.C. — only without the O.C.‘s occasional charm and beautiful coastline.

It’s easy to see why Gossip Girl might have a huge following among teenagers and fans of the book series on which this show is based, although to be fair I don’t think there’s much overlap between those two groups. Regardless, this is yet another drama focusing on the troubled exploits of teens far better off than the rest of the country. Like all good teenagers, they must deal with the same problems as everyone else: how to get the attention of that hot girl when you’re effectively invisible, how to deal with cliquish rejection, how to fit eight people into a stretch limo on the way to yet another unsupervised party…okay, perhaps not the last one. But these sundry (and ultimately shallow) struggles work wondrous magic on the hormonally-driven minds of watching teens, giving them reasons to both lust after and identify with their favorite characters.

Gossip Girl has this formula hardwired into the show’s makeup, with a wealth of hinted-at subplots the creators can use in future episodes to drive the show forward. Serena (Blake Lively) has recently returned from boarding school after her younger brother attempted suicide; now she’s struggling to find her place once more in the clique taken over by former best friend Blair (Leighton Meester). Blair’s boyfriend Nate (Chace Crawford) had a fling with Serena before she left, creating even more animosity between the two girls. And Nate’s pot-smoking best friend Chuck (Ed Westwick) tries to rape Jenny (Taylor Momsen), whose brother Dan (Penn Badgley) has a long-unfulfilled crush on Serena. Aloof from all of these characters is Gossip Girl herself (voiced by Veronica Mars alum Kristen Bell), a popular blogger who always seems to have the latest juicy tidbits about the goings-on in their social scene. It’s quite easy to suspect the producers perused the list of teen drama clichĂ©s and grabbed the ones that had the most exploratory potential. But apparently this is the kind of stuff of which some people cannot get enough.

For the rest of us, Gossip Girl serves not as a show of reference, but as a look into the lives of people too self-obsessed to make any meaningful contributions to the world around them. They exchange depth in relationships for trite, sex-filled romps, maturity for puerility, and self-control for drunken abandon. It’s all presented with an attempted sheen of glamour, but a lingering taste of ugliness is all that remains once the credits roll. At least the O.C. managed to retain a sense of fun and lightheartedness through most of its run; but the characters in Gossip Girl take themselves far too seriously, constantly backstabbing or scheming against each other — although I suppose this show’s name speaks for itself. Gossip Girl is lacking the one thing that defines its network sister show One Tree Hill: a heart. Over the space of four seasons, the characters on One Tree Hill have argued and fought and come to blows and emotionally devastated each other. But they’ve also loved and comforted and protected and learned, and in the process given us a reason to invest in their struggles. The premise of Gossip Girl leaves room for no such fuzzy-heartedness; after all, it’s hard to gossip when good things happen to growing people. This show is nasty, and unapologetic about its tone.

And yet on some level it’s strangely compelling. There’s little empathy to be shared with these characters and their self-inflicted problems; even the “good-hearted” Dan and Serena come across as ostentatiously self-absorbed. But Gossip Girl might just satisfy that occasional need to feel superior to others; I suspect a lot of people will watch this show with an air of delicious condescension. For even with the insane displays of wealth and luxury that these teens enjoy, their lives are quite empty. And that makes most people far more wealthy than Serena and her clique.

Final Verdict: Gossip Girl is this season’s guiltiest semi-pleasure. Unabashedly vicious, it will most likely spark fervent admiration amongst the 12-19 age group and “I can’t believe I’m watching this” addiction for everyone else. But the very themes which give this show its bite also make it rather dangerous for the more easily influenced younger set. Parents beware.

Season Pass on TiVo? I’m not quite hooked yet, but I like the idea of watching a show where I can purge all of my pent-up disdain for certain people I’ve run across the preceding week. If it’s still acerbically watchable a month from now, I’ll set a season pass.

1 Comment »

  1. jm said,

    These shows all look terrible.

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