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Reviewed by Will Harris
ast September, I wrote the following after viewing the pilot for “Gossip Girl”:
“Remember that ‘Simpsons’ episode when Homer praised the Smashing Pumpkins for their effect on his kids because, ‘thanks to your gloomy music, they've finally stopped dreaming of a future I can't possibly provide’? Well, the rich, spoiled punks on this show are offering the antithesis of that. Plus, critics with teenage daughters are already screaming about how they wouldn't want their kids to watch this sex, drug, and underage-drinking laden show...which probably means that those same kids are going to want to tune in every week. Awesome: here comes the future...and it's gonna suck.”
Enthusiastic, wasn’t I? It will not surprise you, then, to learn that I tuned out of the show after watching the disappointingly humorless pilot and stayed away until The CW sent out a screener of the first episodes of the series to air after the resolution of the writer’s strike. What a shock: “Gossip Girl” had gotten better. That didn’t stop me from continuing to bash the show, however, due to the network’s decision to play up the sexy nature of the show whenever possible, so I guess it’s only appropriate that I feel slightly dirty giving “Gossip Girl: Season 1” a positive review.
“Gossip Girl” is equal parts “Cruel Intentions” and “90210,” offering scenes from the class struggle in a private school within New York City’s Upper East Side. Virtually every character in the series is loaded…or, more specifically, their parents are. The exceptions are Dan and Jenny Humphrey (Penn Badgley and Taylor Momsen), a couple of kids attending the school on scholarship. They are our window into this awful scene, showing us how people of relatively average means react to situations where they’re looked down upon for no other reason than the size of their bank account and the resulting social stature. Dan’s kind of a rebel, so even though he quickly wins the heart of socialite Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively), he still gets readily pissed off when he’s treated as a lesser human being by her friends and family. Jenny, meanwhile, is a 14-year-old with bigger britches than she ought to be wearing, so she quickly tries to infiltrate the higher social circles and learns a lot of painful lessons very quickly. She comes across as a complete bitch when she dismisses a cute dog-walker who gives her his phone number because she needs “a king, not a jester.” But when she finally does give him a chance, it sets up a storyline that has an awesome pay-off…well, that is, if you agree that she totally and utterly deserves the comeuppance she receives.
When it comes to the rich circles, it’s all about the melodrama. Serena is a reformed party girl who’s prone to occasional lapses back into her old ways. In addition to having a brother who’s recovering from a suicide attempt that’s been kept under wraps, her mother has a bit of a secret as well: she used to have a thing with Dan’s dad, who was a member of a successful rock band way back in the 1990s. The other major female player is Blair Waldorf, who’s the queen bitch of the series and rules the school with an iron fist. Her male counterpart is Chuck Bass, who’s such an asshole that, if he ever gets his own spin-off, it can only ever be called “Douchebag in the City.” (Seriously, he’s the modern-day equivalent of Steff from “Pretty in Pink.”) Oh, yeah, and there’s also Nate Archibald, who has a history with both Serena and Blair and can’t seem to make up his mind which of them he cares the most for, possibly because his concentration is being affected by having a dad who’s a coke addict.
As you can tell, there’s a lot going on, and it’s almost entirely centered on the affairs of the upper class. So much so, that when the episodes fall back on “real” teenage issues (like, say, taking the SATs), it feels like the writers are just trying to answer complaints that kids in middle America can’t relate to the characters. “Hey, look, everybody: rich kids really are just like you!” Yeah, but they’re not, really. If they were, they wouldn’t be going to cotillions and having coming-out parties and doing fashion shoots and…well, you get the idea. This ain’t reality for 95 percent of the world. But, is it a fun fantasy that they know they can never achieve, or is it a lifestyle that they’ll now strive to achieve for themselves?
Actually, there’s reason to believe that the show’s writers may not even care about their teenaged fans when they’re composing the scripts, given the enjoyable recurrence of a dream sequence where Blair imagines she’s living the life of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” When Lisa Loeb turns up toward the end of the season as the host of a “Rolling Stone”-sponsored concert, featuring the band fronted by Rufus Humphrey (Dan and Jenny’s dad), you get the impression that, if demographics hadn’t been such a major concern, we would’ve seen a whole lot more of this group known as Lincoln Hawk. Granted, when Rufus throws out the comment about how the band has been offered the opening slot on a tour with the Breeders -- “I guess the Luscious Jackson reunion didn’t work out,” -- you get the impression that the line was written by someone who Googled a list of ‘90s one-hit wonders rather than by an actual music fan. But when someone disses Dan in one episode by offering a sneering reference to “your dad’s cassingle,” it comes across as a jugular-slicing insult that only a true music geek could write.
But, hey, wait a minute! Lincoln Hawk was the name of Sylvester Stallone’s character in the 1987 art-wrestling spectacular, “Over the Top!” Is this an inside joke? Could it be that “Gossip Girl” co-creator Josh Schwartz, late of “The O.C.,” was winking at us all along? Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit, because this series is definitely over the top. But, then, that’s exactly why it’s so darned easy to get sucked into it. It’s ridiculously melodramatic at times, but it also has a sense of humor that pervades a lot of those scenes, which is why you’re able to keep from saying, “Oh, this is stupid.” Of course it is. And the producers know it is. Unfortunately, the network seems less interested in embracing the humor and prefers to put up billboards with the acronym “OMFG” alongside shots of Serena making what quite clearly looks to be her O-face. And that, my friends, is why I’m still not going to let my daughter watch the show.
Mind you, having been totally sucked into the guilty pleasure that is “Gossip Girl: The Complete First Season,” I’m totally going to be TiVo’ing Season Two of “Gossip Girl” come Sept. 1. I just won’t be watching it ‘til after the kid’s asleep.
Special Features: There are a couple of featurettes, the best of which is “The Beginning, XOXO,” which is a 20-minute-long background on the show’s origins, and how the pieces fell into place to make it into the series we’ve come to know and both love and despise. Also included are shorter segments on the show’s fashions, and the amount of production that went into Lily van der Woodsen’s wedding. There’s a gag reel (appropriately entitled “LOL”), music videos for The Pierces’ “Boring” and “Secret,” and a downloadable audio version of the first “Gossip Girl” novel.