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March 26, 2009

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TV Review – Gossip Girl Season 1

by Master Pillow

I have always been more enamored by movies than I have been with television series. This is not a new admission as my friends have known this for years nor is it based on some sort of elitist mentality that somehow puts cinematic fare on a pedestal while relegating TV programs to the scrap heap. It is just merely a desire of mine to digest a narrative that has closure within a relatively terse two hour time span as compared to a serial that is broadcast over many months. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate an intricately woven story that weaves its magic over a longer period of time but just an observation of mine that what usually occurs to sustain such a show are a series of increasingly fantastical plot devices coupled with a copious amount of filler material that is so often undesirable.

Then again, most shows follow this trend, especially teen dramas and soap operas in general. I have to admit I am most definitely NOT included in the demographic of The CW’s newest teen hit, Gossip Girl but here I am watching it nonetheless. Based on the Gossip Girl series of books by Cecily von Ziegesar, the show features an omniscient narrator voiced deliciously with sarcastic smugness by Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) who reports like a teen version of the National Enquirer and Perez Hilton about the goings on at a local Upper East Side private school. Every rumor, scandal and fashion faux pas is gloriously outed on Gossip Girl’s home page, an address known and highly frequented by the school’s population. Truly, Kristen Bell does such a bang up job as the narrator it is almost criminal that you never get to see her as one would expect someone like her to wreak devastating havoc upon these rich brats.

The show itself centers on six main characters all of which are played by impossibly coifed teens in couture that will leave viewers gawking and a little bit jealous at all the extravagance in place. These people are suppose to be the elite of New York’s wealthy and it’s displayed at every turn from opulent mansions to chauffeured limousines to the requisite Ostroth Center where troubled members of this gang end up in therapy. If you ever imagined how Paris Hilton might live I suppose this show is as good as any to begin your journey to Neverneverland.

Actually, Peter Pan aside, the world of Gossip Girl is firmly rooted in magical fairy tales even if this uppity world exists it is highly unlikely that most will ever come close to peering into this world of excess and intrigue. This is an alternate world where status and appearance rule the day.

As the series opens we are introduced to former “it” bad girl, Serena Van der Woodsen, played with leggy free-spirited charm by Blake Lively, quietly sneaking back into New York from a long sojourn away from the elite. No one knew why she suddenly took off and left without even telling her best friend, Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), but if there’s one constant in life, things change. With Serena out of the picture Blair has become the Queen B, a position she relishes with appropriate cattiness and not one she is willing to relinquish without an all out catfight. Further complicating things is Blair’s great love, Nathaniel Archibald (Chace Crawford), who harbors secret feelings for Serena and his best friend Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) a particularly sly sleazy chap who dresses in loud spiffy attire than would send Liberace into a fit of glee and who lives only to party and bed the opposite sex and you have the beginnings of an incredibly eclectic mix of teens whose stories are rife with a myriad of possibilities.

Co-creator Josh Schwartz is no stranger to teen drama and though his name might not be familiar to most his previous show, The OC, most definitely is. The OC was “the” teen show only a scant few years ago that showcased the opulent lifestyle of the West Coast before losing its direction and taking a dive into TV’s graveyard of forgotten shows. With Gossip Girl he’s more of less successfully transplanted some of the core elements of The OC into the East Coast environment but some of the similarities are not just skin deep.

First and foremost, he’s boosted the adult quotient whereas the books more or less ignore them. In a case that feels too much like the relationship between Seth and Sandy Cohen, Schwartz has recreated that playful sardonic vibe again this time with a family from Brooklyn headed by Rufus Humphrey (Matthew Settle), a one time rock and roller from the 90s and his son, Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) who has the annoying propensity of talking nonstop much like Seth in The OC. Schwartz has yet another situation that easily juxtaposes the difference in culture and class between those that have and those that want. In his previous show he managed to build much empathy for his supposed lead in Ryan who comes from a broken family by turning him into an adopted son with the wealthy Cohen clan thus leading him to encounter the extravagant lifestyle of the rich and famous.

This time around he’s got Dan Humphrey and his sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen) as have nots who manage to go to this upper class private school solely based on their father’s will and determination to give them the best education that he can afford on his meager salary. Of course this leads both of them to be outcasts amongst these children of wealth a fact not lost on each of them although they both take different tacts. Dan shuns the crowd, content to be a poet and considers himself above the fray whereas his sister Jenny decides that she wants “in” and soon finds herself doing anything to increase her popularity.

The Humphrey family initially starts as the easiest entry point into this surreal world as seen through the eyes of outsiders but the show begins to grind by revealing a common romantic past between Rufus and Lily Van Der Woodsen, Serena’s mother. Making matters worse, other parents are all seen to be totally devoid of morality as well given credence to the phrase, “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.” In fact, every time the show begins to focus on the adults it begins to drag especially since it goes over the same material over and over again until the audience really doesn’t care.

For a show based on humanity’s naughtier, more debased side, the show is surprisingly meek even though morality is often thrown to the wolves. This is a show that features copious amounts of drinking, drugs, sex, strip clubs, gambling, rape and extortion. Now, it’s never gratuitous in showing the actual acts except for a lot of lips connecting and hot petting of skin but the acts are undeniably there. What makes things feel more uncomfortable is that this is a high school meaning everyone should be 18 years or younger and I can’t help but feel a certain sense of unease – Hey, look at Jenny she looks so frackin’ hot in those bright pink leggings and high heels strutting her behind down the street! OMG, she’s only 15?? It makes one feel like some sort of pervert and makes me hope that girls that age don’t really dress like this.

On the other hand, although I am far removed from high school, I can’t help but nod my head in silent agreement that many of these issues these characters harbor are very real and salient to teens nowadays. Maybe not all of them at once or else I’d say our children would be in very big trouble as would our entire society. Still, you can’t help but at least begrudgingly affirm that there’s nothing here in the show that you can’t see in reality just not to the degree that is shown.

Actually, I for one am a bit surprised that if one watches the whole season that I was quietly expecting even more smut and degradation but I found that the show runners never pushed that cart too far, most times only to make an ethical point which, while applauded, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Blair is the show’s Alexis Carrington, someone who schemes and backstabs anyone she sees that displeases her but the show never has the wherewithal to see a plot point to the logical conclusion, seemingly content to wrap things up in a nice red ribbon of sappiness. Every time someone is betrayed, it doesn’t take more than an episode or two for things to go back to “normal” and everyone involved is pardoned. Take Serena’s indiscretion with sleeping with Nate, Blair’s boyfriend since kindergarten or Blair’s subsequent infidelity with Chuck. All I know is that if that happened to me I would go punch my fist through the nearest wall. Instead, we are treated to groan inspiring dialogue whereby all involved make up and pretend that nothing happened.

The show makes a half-hearted attempt to highlight bad influences and their potential pitfalls but it never punishes any of these characters nor even gives the audience an inkling that they are learning important lessons.

This lack of education is what I call the “Worf Syndrome.” Now, I sincerely doubt anyone reading a review on Gossip Girl would expect a Star Trek reference but here it is and unlike some other diehard fans I know, I can easily skewer my favorite science fiction show whenever needed. Worf is a character on Star Trek The Next Generation who my friends and I constantly joked about as having a block of wood for brains. From nearly the first episode to the last seven years later, he displayed an unwavering mentality for recommending shooting first and asking questions later. Every time our crew encountered alien races he’d invariably offer his opinion to raise shields and power up weapons….just in case. While this might seem prudent, he was never right and always discounted. Even after he learned through many episodes to calm down and let his warrior instincts slide he always came across as a dunderhead since he never appeared to grow as a character.

Unfortunately, Gossip Girl suffers from the same case of, “Worf Syndrome.” Characters are painfully thrown into turmoil seemingly every episode but they rarely come out of it with true wisdom. One night of hot sex leads to another to yet another without regard for consequences and, of course, when the requisite pregnancy test comes back negative everyone sighs relief and then jumps back in the sack. Many people are backstabbed, tricked or cajoled into embarking on stupid flights of fancy but rarely do people get their just deserts.

Like most shows that center on a set number of leads, Gossip Girl feels like an apt amalgamation of spin the bottle and musical chairs as partners come and go. You almost wish everyone got it over with in one big frenzied orgy but that would of course never pass the censors. The season finale itself just about undoes the relationships built up throughout the entire year in a smorgasbord that includes every plot device known to man but in doing so makes the viewer feel cheated almost as if they’ve wasted the entire season before Schwartz decided to hit the reset button.

Undoubtedly, the show’s biggest strength is its look and I don’t mean just the fashion. The couture on display coupled with the incredible makeup and hair design make everyone of these characters, even Dan and Jenny Humphrey, look like they’ve just stepped off a shoot for Vogue magazine. I suppose you can call it a running gag when Blair or Jenny gets out of bed or sits at the breakfast table looking as if they are about to walk the fashion runway but it’s way too distracting.

The show almost seems like one long commercial created to sell men’s and women’s fashions. There’s no doubt everyone is immaculately attired right down to the smallest baubles and hair bands. Kudos goes to the wardrobe department in that regard and this in no small way has contributed to the show’s appeal although one wonders if a quick perusal of the Internet would garner more information than what is on display here.

Subsequently, everyone just looks too damn handsome or overtly sexual but at least the show is self-conscious enough to know what it is. That is in effect, the show’s greatest asset. The show runners like Josh Schwartz know they aren’t creating Shakespearean level drama or dialogue here.

This is Sex and the City for the teen crowd replete with pounding tunes from hot artists like Rihanna or even slightly lesser known artists Peter, Bjorn and John (Young Folks) jamming away in the background as pretty boys and girls flash before the camera. In that respect it doesn’t matter really what they say or who they are with. The characters themselves are wholly flat and easily pigeonholed into their respective roles and they never change. Blair begins as the resident b*tch and ends that way. Conversely, Chuck is the smarmy dude with an evil glint in his eye and by the season finale he’s still got that same haughty look. This might work well as a book for young teens who dream of being whisked away into a fairy tale world but I can’t see this running for umpteen seasons if something doesn’t fundamentally happen to change these people.

However, although the show should collapse upon itself due to the vast degree of melodrama, smut and clichés it somehow manages to stay afloat due to sly wit that manages to pop up in unexpected instances and a few performances that manage to scintillate and rise above the prosaic material. Blake Lively in the lead role of Serena manages to glow in most of her scenes endowing her character with manic energy even as her narrative arc plods along and eventually veers into abject schmaltziness. Nevertheless, it’s no cliché when one says that it’s the villains who get the real meaty roles and Gossip Girl is no exception. Both Leighton Meester as Blair and Ed Westwick as Chuck just dominate scenes with their total malevolence, in Westwick’s case, using almost piercing leers to convey his true intentions. In fact, all of the characters that have more of a moral compass are requisitely dull by comparison to our antiheroes, rarely contributing to narratives other than to quote prophetic or demonstrate their tenuous ethical superiority.

Needless to say logic sometimes takes a backseat precisely whenever it interferes with the plot. Case in point young Jenny is about to be date-raped so she texts her brother who is on the other side of town. Sure, she’s young and in a tough position but texting her brother on a cell phone in hopes he’ll arrive while her pursuer is literally right next to her? I can suspend disbelief only so far. Yet, this is precisely setup like this so that Dan can have his white knight moment and teach the intended architect a lesson with his fist.

Josh Schwartz is no stranger to this genre but he seems to have learned some hard lessons from The OC. That show started with a bang but quickly fizzled and ran out of gas as it meandered through dimly constructed arcs that appeared within the first breakout season (I’m looking at you, Oliver!). Gossip Girl doesn’t so much as charge out of the gate but merely gently trots along content in its own whims but it manages to avoid The OC’s pitfalls especially those in the later seasons that change the focus of the show away from the initial fish out of water scenario. If nothing else, Gossip Girl is the epitome of a guilty pleasure with just enough allure to keep you watching. Parents are going to hate this and rightly so but I very much doubt that it will keep its target audience from tuning in.

Till next season. XOXO. Gossip Girl.

**1/2 out of ****

Created By Stephanie Savage & Josh Schwartz
Based on the Gossip Girl series of books by Cecily von Ziegesar

Serena van der Woodsen: Blake Lively
Blair Waldorf: Leighton Meester
Dan Humphrey: Penn Badgley
Nate Archibald: Chace Crawford
Jenny Humphrey: Taylor Momsen
Chuck Bass: Ed Westwick
Lily van der Woodsen: Kelly Rutherford
Rufus Humphrey: Matthew Settle
Gossip Girl: Kristen Bell
Vanessa Abrams: Jessica Szohr

© 2009 The Galactic Pillow

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1 Comment Post a comment
  1. evie
    Mar 27 2009

    Wow, I love how you review this TV series! What you wrote, matched my sentiments exactly! Is there really so much sex going on among teenagers nowadays? Call me neurotic/paranoid, but I’m really starting to worry about our children already!Sometimes my eyes are so glued to characters’ dresses and shoes, I don’t hear their conversations. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not. Maybe this show is a fashion advertisement(!) ;-))I hope the messages that the writers send through the shows are morally correct. I don’t want our kids to be watching this TV series and learn to behave like the b*tchy characters! That would be No good. Teenagers have to learn that their actions will have good or bad consequences. I don’t think this show is ‘realistic’ enough in showing/portraying that.

    Reply

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