(Premieres on The CW tonight, 9pm ET / 8pm CT)
OMG! Josh Schwartz has a new show! And it’s just like The O.C., except the duplicitous rich kids are from the Upper East Side instead of the California coast. Okay, so they’re not as colorful, and a little difficult to tell apart. And there’s no Seth Cohen to cut through the teen soap trash with adorable quips, no Sandy Cohen with his shaggy hippie-surfer idealism, and no trailer-trash Julie Cooper to seduce the nearest power broker and terrorize the local populace. All three of those beloved (or beloved until the show took a nosedive in Season Two) characters have surrogates in Gossip Girl, the first of two Schwartz projects (the other being NBC’s Chuck) to roll out this season. But none of the GG facsimiles measure up to their O.C. counterparts, at least not in the pilot episode, which plays a little like a discarded O.C. script with the names changed and CW’s demographic-clubbing factored in.
As if to twist the knife after Veronica Mars’ cancellation, the “Gossip Girl” of the title is voiced by Kristen Bell, whose witticisms from the earlier show are replaced here by annoying shorthand narration from a secret blog. Everybody in the show’s exclusive private school checks the “Who Is Gossip Girl?” site and circulates its poisonous buzz through the Sidekicks apparently holstered to their waists. The big news is that crazy-rich former bad girl Serena (Blake Lively) has suddenly resurfaced after she left for boarding school under mysterious circumstances a year earlier. Serena’s return causes tension with her former BFF, crazy-rich former good girl Blair (Leighton Meester), who doesn’t understand why she left without even dropping a line. When they meet to hash out their differences, the conversation goes cordially (“I love you, B.” “I love you too, S.”), but there’s trouble a-brewin’, centered on S’s relationship with B’s long-time BF Nate (Chace Crawford).
Meanwhile, super-bland Seth Cohen stand-in Dan (Penn Badgley), son of a super-bland Sandy Cohen type Rufus (Matthew Settle), comes from humbler economic roots than his peers, and he and his bubbly sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen) have enough trouble just trying to fit in. His problems deepen when the scandalized Serena, now persona non grata to the school’s inner circle, takes a romantic interest in him. And then there’s lone-wolf Chuck (Ed Westwick), a malicious would-be roofie-dropper who tries to cut through the pleasantries with Jenny at a party and get right to the date rape.
There’s a surface decadence to Gossip Girl that’s intended to be edgy: The kids slurp martinis and champagne, take limousines to private club parties, and have sexual dalliances under the influence, all with their parents’ tacit approval. (When one trust-fund baby complains about how his life has been decided for him, you wonder who’s around to do the deciding.) But it’s been nearly a decade since Dawson’s Creek shocked viewers with tawdry subplots like a teacher seduced by her student, and Gossip Girl surprises mostly by how tame its alleged scandals are, at least in the first episode. Having B’s BF mixed up with her BFF (sorry, that’s the show way of putting it, not mine) may be dramatic, but for a primetime soap opera, it’s not exactly the shock of the century.
And yet… why is there a small part of me that wants to tune in next week? It could be that shot near the end, when Blair and Chuck—now united in evil righteousness—give Serena look that’s a little like Carrie post-pig-blood on prom night. The school year hasn’t even started yet, and they’re already plotting the blackest revenge. A little more nastiness could help animate these generically pretty teenagers. After getting through the creaky business of setting up the world of the show, perhaps Schwartz will follow through better in subsequent episodes. Or, more likely, focus his creative energies on Chuck.
—The kids of today are extremely skilled with text-messaging. As Jenny fends off Chuck with one hand, she’s still able to write two extensively detailed S.O.S. messages to her brother with the other.
—A couple more signs that this is a Josh Schwartz show: 1. The soundtrack is loaded with excellent alterna-singles like Peter Bjorn And John’s “Young Folks” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back Into Black.” 2. A rich kid gets slugged in the face.
—Working his connections at a fancy restaurant, Chuck tries to seduce Serena with a grilled cheese and truffle oil sandwich. I would find such an advance near-impossible to resist, and I’m happily married.