A couple episodes back (not that the past counts much when talking about Gossip Girl), we established that the creative minds behind Gossip Girl aren't ones for slipping things under the surface. Watching tonight's episode, "Dan De Fleurette," I was reminded that, perhaps more than any other television program in recent memory, Gossip Girl is all about that surface level. And not just because it's an incredibly superficial show—if there's any one thread that follows through its 47 episodes, it's the principal characters' struggle with how they perceive themselves versus the way they want to be perceived. Blair as the queen bee, Jenny as the ambitious outsider, Chuck as deviant-turned-captain-of-industry whose true skills may or may not lie in the industry of secrets; all of the best (read: the juiciest) of the show's plotlines revolve around these identities and the characters' attempts to either protect them or shed them.
So it's unfortunate when an episode is predicated on the stunt casting that sank "Dan De Fleurette." Oh, but you might think, "An episode featuring guest spots by Tyra Banks and Hilary Duff, those founts of insanity and poor acting, respectively? How could this be a bad episode in the upside-down world of Gossip Girl discourse, where trash is valued, attempts at substance are mocked, and dogs and cats live together?" Well, Dr. Peter Venkman, I'll tell you: Despite their characters' own struggles with identity, there are certain things that this show can't cover over with a coat of references to fashion designers I've never heard of and ludicrous behavior I'll never be rich enough to get away with, and those things include the terrible performances given by Tyra Banks when she's pretending she isn't in love with herself and by Hilary Duff when she isn't playing a teenage girl who voices her inner monologue through a cartoon. Check out the way Banks tried to translate her signature "smile with your eyes" technique to acting during her first scene with Blake Lively. Yikes.
Banks completely sabotaged the first glimpse at the kind of unrealistic plotting we've been asking for the last four weeks: Serena Van Der Woodsen, professional teenager and burgeoning "It" girl, used her knowledge of restaurant back entrances and ability to level with the difficult and conceited (this is what you get from being best friends with a terrible person/fantastic character Blair for 18 years) to score a job with a high-powered public relations firm. Like all other mega-rich teenagers deferring an Ivy League education. That's probably how her boss, the dreaded K.C. received her start. Anyway, Serena ended up babysitting Banks' Ursula for the rest of the episode, but lost her job when her slowly awakening emotions got in the way and she prevented K.C. from throwing a crying, near-eruption Ursula to the hungry paparazzi. It's okay, though, because Serena helped Ursula find her "true self," which wasn't enough of an achievement to convince an irate Lily that Serena's "true self" isn't waiting for her at Brown; at episode's end, Serena packed for an extended stay at the Waldorf penthouse, where hopefully she'll find Wallace Shawn (where's he been?) and more silly things I can wrap in scare quotes.
Blair spent some time at the penthouse as well, and even though her reasons for doing so were inspired by something people actually go through—an inability to move beyond high school— they made for a more interesting plot because Blair's attempt at retaining her identity is more interesting than Serena's search for hers. After discovering that He-Man was a Master Of The Universe long before any Wall Street banker was, Blair received an urgent message from Constance: new queen Jenny is dismantling the social hierarchy which Blair worked so hard to maintain. Sensing a chance to return to a place she understands and where she's respected, Blair installed a puppet regime to temporarily oust Jenny, and re-instated her annual slumber party. It was wrapped up in the expensive trappings of Gossip Girl, but it was fun to watch Blair become "that girl," the person so desperate to crawl back into the protective cocoon of high school that she starts hanging around her alma mater and (shudder) spending time with underclassmen.
What was even more fun to watch was Chuck and Jenny's undermining of this development, which involved the unlikely pair attending the première of the new film starring Ursula and Duff's Olivia. (This week's fuel on the "Chuck Bass is Gossip Girl" fire: The SMS blast alerting everyone at Blair's sleepover that Chuck was with Jenny.) I don't think the writers give enough thought to the joy of seeing their characters interact with those outside of the two or three other characters we usually see them with. Having forgiven him for his brutish behavior toward her in the show's pilot, Chuck and Jenny have an intriguing dynamic because they both know the vulnerable side of Blair. And, for some unknown reason, being around Dan makes Nate a completely watchable, non-boring presence. Just as Jenny believes with Constance, a widening of Gossip Girl's social circles could benefit the show.
It's too soon to tell if that circle should be wide enough to include Olivia, but we'll have time to figure it out: Duff reportedly signed on for a seven episode arc. Good for Dan (as per the episode's the title, a romantic seed has been planted for Lonely Boy), maybe good for us if Olivia proves unable to balance life as a student and movie star. (Or maybe rooming with Vanessa will drive her nuts.) If anything, that's another identity crisis for the writers to pull and push whatever way they see fit. The actress portraying her may not be up-to-snuff, but Olivia's obsession with the things at the surface level could make her just right for Gossip Girl.
Grade: Without Banks and Duff, it would've been a B+. With them, it's a C.
-It's funny, but Rufus does his Lily impression a little too well. Perhaps he practiced in front of a mirror on the many lonely nights he faced after Dan and Jenny's mom left for Hudson. Ew.
-Chuck, on the lack of decorum at NYU: "What do you expect from a place where men wear sandals?"
-Is anybody else annoyed by pop culture non-references like Olivia's fictional "King Arthur with vampires" series Endless Knights? I realize that it's not exactly in the best interest for a show that shares a network with The Vampire Diaries to make a direct Twilight reference, but why not just make up an entirely fictional blockbuster film series whose posters don't resemble the cover of a Twilight book? It doesn't help that K.C. hangs the poster for Endless Knights II across from Vanessa's White Heat poster.
-Observation from the fiancée, on the Twilight tip: Chace Crawford looks like he would have made a handsome vampire. Apparently some the fans lurking on The CW's message boards agree.