When Gossip Girl first premiered back in 2007, its allure, aside from its hype as The OC's east coast sister show, was its supposed inside peek at the lives of Manhattan's privileged naughty schoolgirls and boys; like its predecessor, it portrayed a real-life community that was on trend, and heighted it for television. It was a teen soap for the luxury-obsessed mid-aughts, mean-spirited escapist fare with a reverence for old money and haute couture that made more down-to-earth (and sadly, probably older than the target demographic) viewers long for the days of Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls. But despite all this, it was still a high school show; a good fifty percent of its drama took place at or was related somehow to the tony Constance Billard School the characters attended. At its best, it was Cruel Intentions: The Series inasmuch as network TV allows, slightly more scandalous than the average teen drama, and occasionally barbed and snarky in a way that felt refreshing at the time.
So when the characters graduated at the end of the second season, it seemed the show's days were numbered. There's always the “college curse” to contend with when high school shows take their characters to higher education, but without Constance, Gossip Girl would just be a show about rich people in New York, hardly a novel concept; Queen Bee Blair (Leighton Meester, consistently the strongest player here) would just be a shrieking lunatic with an extremely tenuous grasp on reality without her beloved school and its flocks of minions who were all too eager to prop her up. And that's more or less what has happened during the show's third and fourth seasons; it's become less Cruel Intentions and more Dynasty for Juniors, just another soap about rich people behaving badly, yet not fearless enough to risk doing anything that might make it look uncool or too over-the-top.
And yet, I still find myself coming back to it, because Gossip Girl, like The OC before it, has a smart streak that shows from time to time, even in its dullest episodes. I may be totally projecting here, but as terrible as the writing often is, it still feels like it was written by humans, maybe even humans who had a good laugh or two in the writing room while banging out the latest contrived Bass Industries plot. The universe of the show has become populated with increasingly thinly sketched supporting characters (Reina Thorpe, I'm looking at you) and the leads seem more and more detached from the material with every passing season (can we get a pulse on the ironically named Blake Lively, please?) but at its heart it still shows signs of life. I would never say I expect it to come back from the shark it jumped mid season three (It's possible that I've just been disappointed with Serena's continued existence ever since that car wreck with Trip Vanderbilt) but it can be a fun way to burn an hour on a Monday night.
With that said, tonight's return was only slightly above par, such as par for this show is these days. I usually dread Gossip Girl season premieres because nothing much tends to happen in them; half of the dialogue is just catchup about what the characters have been up to over the summer and what their goals will be this fall; blah blah Hamptons blah getting over so-and-so blah blah and securing my rightful place at blah. There was a lot of stalling for time, especially in the Blair/Louis plot that stayed just as boring as it was last season until Dan came into the picture – but there was also a refreshingly small amount of exposition, and we got to see Chuck Bass ride a motorcycle. But Gossip Girl is still terrible at giving us a hook or clear-cut reason for anyone other than diehard fans to tune in after the premiere. The three candidates for Most Intriguing Plotline That May Convince You To Continue Watching are pretty weak: We already knew that Blair was probably pregnant, we already knew that Charlie was actually named Ivy and would probably be back to cause more trouble, and whatever is going on with Chuck's internal organs is too vague to be considered TV to Bing About.
Perhaps my biggest problem with this episode are the absolutely absurd situations (for completely opposite reasons) it finds our two leading ladies in. Does anyone think Blair is actually going to marry Louis? Speaking of TV to MiFi about, there's a reason that #Chair and #Dair are hashtags and #Blouis isn't. Maybe Hugo Becker is a master thespian in his own language, but it is so painful watching the usually buoyant Meester act opposite his wooden delivery; the actress seems to be as determined to fake the chemistry with her co-star as her character is. Maybe that makes it secretly brilliant, I don't know. At any rate, it's hard to root for a relationship where the protagonist is so clearly marrying for money and title, no matter how romantic the writers try to pass it off. Not only does it lack dramatic tension, but its the one Blair plot that has made me feel indifferent about my otherwise favorite Gossip Girl character. Blair's arc throughout the series has been the process of her growing up and letting go of the fantasy world she lives in; I get the decision to let her regress a bit during last season's Paris episodes, but to actually bring back Louis and make him a central part of the plot is such a baffling waste of time, and her character is capable of so many more fun things.
And then there's Serena, boldly rebelling from fame and fortune to become… a set PA? “I've gone from It girl to working girl,” she declares proudly at one point. Maybe Gossip Girl has always been this ridiculous and I just didn't know since I wasn't familiar with the finer points of New York society life, but as a longtime LA resident and former film student I have friends who live paycheck to paycheck in crappy apartments in Koreatown and still refuse to do PA work because it's beneath them. I've always struggled with what a real life equivalent of Serena would be, but I'm pretty sure it would be no less weird to have Lindsay Lohan show up on set and be all gung-ho about fetching Chex Mix for the dolly grips. But good for her, way to make a go of it. Too bad her supposedly evil supervisor (and obvious love interest to be) Marshall is completely justified in his entire speech about how she's wasting everybody's time by being there. And too bad that adaptation of The Beautiful and Damned looks even worse than that Camelot-with-vampires movie Hilary Duff;s character was supposed to be in in Season 3 (I thought at first that shockingly bad Roaring Twenties opening was just supposed to be another Blair dream sequence, not an actual movie based on an actual Fitzgerald novel that we're to believe is being made by an actual studio.) But good for David O. Russell that nobody watches Gossip Girl so nobody will see him reprise his bizarre guest appearance as himself and the director of the film.
Chuck, meanwhile, must have seen the Jim Carrey film Yes Man on the flight to Los Angeles (I mean, where else does one see Yes Man?) because he's in super-manic denial mode about Blair's wedding and and preaching his newfound gospel of Yes to his friends with a zealous fervor just shy of Tom Cruise in Magnolia. He's on such an affirmation high that he pops a few too many wheelies on his motorcycle and wipes out on Mullholland Drive, then, bloodied and amnesia-stricken, wanders down the hill and is found by a winsome blonde who nurses him back to health and tries to help him unlock the secret of his identity… LOL, psych! - that was last season. Nope, he just gets a bit banged up (possibly worse than he thought) and scares off his surprisingly normal-looking stuntwoman girlfriend du jour. Chuck is pretty far gone anymore, isn't he? The window smashing scene from late last season has proven hard to recover from, and his weird biker antics seemed like a return to that territory. The real beneficiary of the teaches of Chuck Bass is Nate, who, in a hilarious for all the wrong reasons scene, manages to seduce Elizabeth Hurley by only using the word Yes. Moral of this story: Nate loves the older ladies, and the older ladies love Nate when he doesn't try so hard to use all those fancy words and sentences and just bats his eyelashes and makes them feel 30 again.
By the end of the episode, Serena gets a promotion (despite being tricked into making an erroneous drug run,) Louis begins to grow a backbone (peonies for Blair, thank GOD!) Dan gets a book deal (no thanks to Vanessa, who continues to meddle from beyond the grave or wherever she went,) and Nate will probably bang Elizabeth Hurley again. Chuck, Nate and Serena seem to be set to stay in Los Angeles for some time, and that should make for some more fun episodes, believability aside. I really could do with more shows where characters just casually walk out of marijuana dispensaries like they're Starbuckses and don't acknowledge the giant bags of weed in their hands until after more than a minute of dialogue (none of which I remember because I was just gaping at the television, trying to figure out what was going on and what show I was watching.) And Blake Lively actually seems to be enjoying herself under the California sun; either that, or she really is improving as an actress.
The bigger question is how much longer can Gossip Girl keep spinning its wheels like this. Three regulars have left permanently (Taylor Momsen, Jessica Szohr, and Conor Paolo) and those still left seem to be itching to get out of their contracts and sleepwalking through their scenes. Three of the show's producers (Schwartz, Stephanie Savage, and Leila Gerstein) are now working on the new Rachel Bilson vehicle Hart of Dixie, which I'm sure they will be giving more of their time and attention to during its freshman season. Gossip Girl is the older sibling who peaked in high school and still lives with its parents, continually neglected in favor of its younger siblings, and if it were on any other network its pathetic ratings would be enough to get it canceled. But this is the CW, and you may be surprised to learn that One Tree Hill is still a show. Gossip Girl could very easily be carried on by inertia for another two, three seasons, barring any objections from its key players. But it already seems like a remnant of a bygone, pre-recession era, and its brand of glamour is barely relevant now, let alone its snark. Maybe Gossip Girl should take a page from the new ABC drama Revenge's book and show rich people doing what we really want these days: getting destroyed.
- Serena turns down champagne in one scene, explaining that she hasn't been drinking – it's the “LA lifestyle.” Do you think its possible that a room full of television writers has never set foot in Los Angeles?
- Also, ugh - "Yes, Then Zero"? Your cheeky riffage on movie titles is just turning into gibberish, Gossip Girl.
- One downside to less exposition is that I wasn't too clear on how much time had passed since last season – if Blair is actually pregnant and her flat belly is any indication, it can't have been more than a couple months, which is unusual - the general rule of Gossip Girl time is that it's taking place at about the time it's airing.
- It's been a long time since I read The Beautiful and Damned, but I don't recall there being any stunts in it.
- On that note, why is it so aggravating that The Beautiful and Damned is Serena's favorite book? Because it's really aggravating. Mostly because I have a really hard time believing that she read any further than the title before deciding "Ohmigod this book totally GETS me!"