Gossip Girl airs Monday nights at 8 PM EST on the CW, though it was not always this way. It premiered, last September, in a 9 PM Wednesday slot. Then there was that writers’ strike; the show survived and relocated to Monday. The second season premiered earlier this month, after a summer of Monday night reruns. For the longest time, I thought Gossip Girl was one of the Gilmore Girls, or maybe a show about Missy Elliott. I have not seen The O.C., save that one clip that everybody parodies with the gun and the Sadness and the Imogen Heap.
So. Gossip Girl is about a circle of teens living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and their goonish, mostly despicable parents. All involved are good looking, well heeled, and well dressed. Like, really well dressed. Sometimes the show feels like Masterpiece Theatre-style costume drama, but with more bass. Gossip Girl is the nom de blog of the show’s narrator, an unseen but omniscient Scylla who publishes canards about and, identically, stirs up the lives of these kids. I suppose we are meant, in 2008, to equate our viewing the show to the fictional experience of reading Gossip Girl’s blog entries and imagining the lives of the people described. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The show’s main kids are, in decreasing order of rich-assedness: Chuck, Blair, Nate, Serena, Dan, Jenny, and Vanessa. In the first season, most of these folks are in their junior year at expensively named private schools. They skitter about in limos and private jets and live in buildings that employ white-gloved doormen. High school life is jittery and hyper-excited, fraught with soirees, brunches, cotillions, parties, and relentless, glittery opportunities to meet-scandalous. They plot, scheme, talk, shop, text, connect, break up, fight, fuck, and reminisce to of-the-moment alternative and indie rock. It’s Terribly Exciting 2.0. Even the names of the cast have a similar sort of decadent, unworkable quality about them: Penn Badgley, Leighton Meester, Taylor Momsen, Chace Crawford.
The show’s are characters of a comfortable sort of flatness, characters for which there is only a small, contained set of descriptors that play out mildly in various situations. Blake Lively—the blonde sister of the traveling pants, you’ll recall—plays a marble-mouthed sun-child called Serena Celia van der Woodsen. That’s a name you say like it’s an institution. Serena’s a popular ex-party girl with a heart of gold. Literally. Nah, only figuratively.
Blair Waldorf is Serena’s best friend, a wincing, pouting, obsessive sort of person wrapped up in little girl clothes and round eyes. She has baby-cheeks and lips like whoa. Blair keeps a cartoonish coterie of loyal handmaidens, sycophants who never seem to muster up a personality or remain in the show for more than four contiguous episodes. There were probably all kinds of difficulties negotiating longer-term contracts for some of these supporting characters; “minion bitch #3” is perhaps an unappealing line on one’s résumé.
Item! Dan Humphrey dates Serena for most of the first season. Dan talks too much and doesn’t have a trust fund, and he lives in Williamsburg. He’s on financial aid. But he’s number two in his class, published in The New Yorker, and is a good big brother to Little Jenny. In Gossip Girl’s parade of adolescences we never had, I am, in not so many words, Dan Humphrey from Brooklyn, and so are you. As the warm, wonderful Point of Identification, Dan is a pouting ninny in a fitted shirt, the guy who gets the dream girl but has to make sure everybody knows how disappointed he is with her sometimes. Dan gets his cake and eats it too, masking his own brazen social climbing with shocked—shocked!—indignation about his spoiled friends and their unscrupulous behavior. He even slams the bedroom door when he’s upset.
Chuck Bass is obviously the best character. He’s a thing of pure camp, vaguely evil, vaguely British, all slimy and slithering and jaw thrust forward and tight pants. In one episode, Chuck purchases a burlesque club.
The big/not big joke of the show is that these are all uniformly bad people. They all suck. We are meant to be—or perhaps it is less presumptuous just to say that the writers are—perpetually and mightily impressed with how naughtysexybad everyone is being. Over the summer, a series of billboards promoting the second season plastered quotes from the show’s starchier critics over close-up photographs of the cast, undressed or fucking or getting there: “Mind-blowingly inappropriate,” “Every parent’s nightmare,” “A nasty piece of work,” and such.
Maybe I’m getting old.
And another thing: transportation is a non-event in Gossip Girl’s New York. Nobody ever needs to take the subway because they all have chauffeurs and cars; nobody ever has conversations in chauffeured cars because, well, everybody has their own. I lived in Brooklyn this summer, and took lots of subways, usually to cross the river. I distinctly remember standing helplessly for twenty minutes in the Jay Street/Borough Hall station on a hot Saturday night and then sweating rocks in W 4th St. station for half an hour. Gossip Girl takes place in a barely-there sort of New York City, nourished more by impression than by presence, all quick-cut establishing shots and casual name-dropping of landmarks. Nobody sweats visibly.
It is at about this point that the author must admit his feeble claim to any kind of hard-fought, intensely personal defense of New York. I grew up in New Haven, Conn., poster child for a more pragmatic kind of southern Connecticut than the sunny, sanguine one more common in the public imagination. I watched the first two episodes of Gossip Girl in mid-August, sitting with my laptop on Amtrak’s Adirondack Line, travelling from Penn Station to Port Kent, NY. Port Kent is not far from a cottage in the Adirondacks that my family was renting for a week. My father, upon my arrival at the station, shared a conversation he had with an elderly couple while waiting for me. They—like my family and I—had come from Rochester, NY, to vacation in the mountains, but instead of fishing, hiking, or kayaking, watching the Amtrak come in every day was their favorite Adirondack pastime.
This is all to say, in too many words, that Gossip Girl presents an idea of New York. The series is called Gossip Girl, not 10021 or The U.E.S., but hazy and implicit in everything about it is the weirdness induced upon people interacting normally by the added variable that they are in New York. What an abstruse testament to the power of place, that. Extreme wealth is part of it, to be sure. It is a Thing the characters have to deal with, a pat device to explain away character frictions, a partition that can be nicely rearranged like a piece of furniture to motivate whatever ugly decision or backstabbing might be needed.
But I’m only saying. I spent this summer working at a large investment bank in downtown Manhattan. For ten weeks, I combed my hair, wore a shirt and pants, slid about the transit system, went out to fancy meals, and networked over expensive coffee and a mutual sense of obligation. It was the summer, you recall, of oil prices, of Fannie and Freddie, of unemployment and ghosts in the mortgage woodwork, so there was always lots to talk and think about. I swore a lot at work, but only because everybody else did. That’s a thing about Wall Street, I think: the barriers to entry—the interview, the mystique—are shrouded in formality and stiffness, but once you’re in, it’s a men’s locker-room of shit-shooting, ass-slapping, and fat-chewing.
Many days, my co-workers would jet off early from work to dates and drinks and dinners; sometimes they would even come back to the office at 10 PM after these events and do some more work before going home. Regardless, the next day’s conversation would inevitably saunter toward how was the food, wasn’t the service terrible, why didn’t you order the scallops, I’ll bring Liz there next time. There is a certain face of New York life that is entirely about the lobster risotto at Del Posto (“divine”) and the pommes purées at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (“outstanding”), about drinks after work at Ulysses and bottle service at 205.
The conspiracy of Princeton, the Ivy League, and 2008 has turned a summer job in New York into summer-in-New-York, a kind of institutional, contrived fantasy that lures both the creative type and the consultant with the idea that, just by being in the city, your emotions will be more strongly felt, your ingenuity heightened, your dreams more palpable, your dumbass nights and weekends sexier. These things are one and the same, the Gossip Girl reassembly of New York out of normal people and alternative rock, the restaurants, and the Princeton intern thing: all emerge from an expectation that the big city will fill in the gaps and elevate us, will make us forget how damn mundane and frustrating these things tend to be.
I am, in the end, unimpressed by drama; that is, the twisty, tightly packed stuff that writers of shows like Gossip Girl like to lob at their characters in order for their carefully workshopped personalities to blossom.
We’ll continue watching Gossip Girl, perhaps, like we look through old postcards or yearbooks. We’ll speculate what it would have been like to watch it over the course of a school year, as though the show transpired in real time; what it would have been like to watch it with Kate or Shannon or definitely Erin, at least back when she said you looked good in red, before her flitting, girlish sarcasm started to sound programmatic and conditioned. New York was a thing, sure, but only when friends from home asked where you were working this summer, or had to bring it up with your parents on the phone. Otherwise, it was just a backdrop, a name assigned to the place where we got chocolate croissants, where we tried on goofy clothes, where we got on the train to work every morning, where we sang “Fuck Me Pumps” with exaggerated Winehouse sneer. And there are the odd banalities we’d dig up, the mostly quiet moments we’d broach and let hang for ten seconds out of a noisy dinner. How we’d see Keri Russell with her kid at Carroll Park on Sundays, how we’d buy Italian Ice and watch skinny kids play ball with a tattered hoop, how we’d walk the Brooklyn Bridge when the subway ended late at night and talk in hushed tones about Weezy, &c. And it would all be a coarse microcosm of the big ideas we floated and kicked between us, about what it means to have a job, about New York landlords, about why Prospect Park is better than Central Park.
And so the first episode of Gossip Girl’s second season finds our heroes in the Hamptons, wrapping up their summers of hot lifeguards and bored wives. Full disclosure: I watched this season premiere on my laptop while spending a few days in the Hamptons before school started. Total coincidence. Not all the storefronts are as clean and quaint as the ones in the show; the beaches sometimes have more sharp shells than sand. If it gets humid, which it can, your seat back starts to stick to your shirt. Get up. Pour another glass of seltzer. Sit down and adjust the dog-eared corner of your book. Scratch yourself.