The Pleasures of Gossip Girl

So, it’s been a while! Here I am, hoping to resurrect this blog for something beyond the periodic conference review. This semester I am, for the first time, requiring my students in one course to keep a blog. The course is on Teen TV, and they all have chosen to follow one program that could (loosely at least) be called Teen TV. It’s an experiment, but so far they seem to be enjoying exploring their media critic voice in the potentially more playful framework of a blog.

And I got round to thinking—if I’m making them do this, I should really share some Teen TV related thoughts here as well. So here are my initial musings on my current favorite televisual indulgence, Gossip Girl.

My appreciation for Gossip Girl is such that, despite a somewhat frustrating first episode of the season, I found myself maintaining faith that it would get better—which it did, quite quickly, with a second episode that offered all the joys specific to Gossip Girl: a glossy dark look, wonderful clothes, sardonic lines delivered with wit, a tongue in cheek appreciation of its own melodramatic antics. Not to mention the two compelling icons of this cultural moment, Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass. Deliciously perverse, they seem to undermine the very social structures their capital depends on. And they’ve met with such love in the fannish and blogging universe, even as the more traditional, fan-fiction oriented fandom itself stutters and starts (growing pains, I’m hoping).

The first episode seemed to struggle in its lack of place: the exclusive Upper East Side teen royalty were vacationing in the Hamptons, and the episode’s embrace of bright colors and sunny green expanses moved from decadent urban subversion to tacky displays of suburban excess. The scenes located in New York were, conversely, entrenched in social references to real places and personalities rather than establishing a more visceral and aesthetic sense of Gossip Girl’s fantasy Upper East Side (as) schoolyard world. Perhaps this excess of real-world social references (including the guest spot by Manhattan “socialite” Tinsley Mortimer) is appropriate given that Gossip Girl’s energy over the summer has manifested in blogs following the lives of the young actors and the social scene of New York. But it didn’t translate into an hour of the deliciousness I’ve come to expect from Gossip Girl.

The first episode may have also struggled from a clash of media. The Gossip Girl books (authored by Cecily Von Ziegesar, produced and marketed by Alloy Marketing) follow only weeks at a time per volume. A summer transition takes multiple books. For the most part, the televisual adaptation of Gossip Girl mirrors the slow pacing of the books, in which every outfit choice (often listed by designer) and relationship quandary has an epic stature, and yet never leaves the intimacy of a given moment. But in painting in broad strokes, GG’s first episode of the second season force fit characters into plot lines, and into whip-lash inducing closure and unnecessary new openings. Not that anything was egregiously out of character (beyond Blair’s demand that Chuck proclaim his love for her… which was simultaneously the low and high point of the episode.) Chuck’s explanation of his behavior (he claimed that he backed out of their hastily planned European summer trip at the last moment because he was afraid she’d “see him”) offered resonant character insight, but at the expense of character continuity. Chuck may be that self aware, but he’s not going to give it up quite that easily.

The OC, Josh Schwartz’s previous effort, used to have the opposite problem. With a rubric based on Rebel Without a Cause, it had no problem offering up epic openers and closers, with poignant images of misfit Seth sailing out into the ocean. But it lost itself in plot machinations with temporary actors and ridiculous plot turns. Yes, its moments of self-reference were extremely amusing, as when side character Zach commented on his unexpected return to the series after his requisite six episodes were up. But without a doubt The OC’s most powerful moments were in its opening and closing arcs, where grand gestures lifted teen angst to compelling heights.

Gossip Girl relishes sordid plot contrivances and all but incestual family networks. And it has gravitas too, compelling characters who grow on you slowly, so that in moments such as Blair’s virtual un-throning last season, you realize how much you’ve come to feel for the high school’s bitchy Queen B. But it does so by painting in intimate if ostentatious strokes. That’s what the second episode indeed had to offer, as the teens returned to their daily lives in Manhattan, and that’s what I’m hoping for in the rest of the season as well.

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