Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the debut of Gossip Girl, which should make all of us feel old. Since this show was one of the formative ones of my adolescence (which probably explains a lot about me), I feel compelled to eulogize it in an excessively long look back. You’ve been warned.
In the mid-2000s, The OC brought the teen soap opera back to the mainstream. After it ended, writers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to adopt Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl book series. They cranked up the nastiness, cracked open the scotch, and created a world that felt just like yours except that it existed on another dimension. I’m not the first person to note just how scarily prescient the show was when it came to millennials’ online behavior. Its omniscient social eye tracked everywhere you went and everything you did, and no one minded, because everyone wanted to be seen—on the society pages, on the runways of fashion shows, on the gossip girl blog itself—a trait that felt intimidating, liberating, and very real.
There was an urgency and vitality coursing through everything that elevated the problems of rich teenagers to the level of grand, glorious entertainment. The show was vibrant, colorful, and alive. Despite the underlying warnings about the city’s dangers, it overflowed with optimism—with the hope that your lot in life was never static, with the potential for any enemy to one day see you in a new light, with the promise that you could always change yourself into someone you liked better. And all that co-existed with callous backstabbing, breaking and entering, people being shoved into fountains, people being shoved into birthday cakes, limo rides to high school, threesomes with movie stars, sabotage, bets and dares and challenges, and ubiquitous scarves. It was a sick joke and a sweet dream, all at once.
In the best episodes, Schwartz and Savage whipped up a swirl of vertiginously complicated schemes, crisscrossing storylines, and hidden agendas. It can’t even be explained without specifics, so just take a look at one episode from season three: Blair, Vanessa, and Olivia (an actress dating Dan, aka Hilary Duff) were vying to give a toast at an event hosted by NYU. Blair convinced goody-goody Vanessa to get Olivia away from the event (thus making her toast-ineligible). To that end, Vanessa told Dan that Olivia didn’t want to meet his parents, and told her that Dan’s parents wouldn’t approve of her. Then, Blair needed Vanessa removed from the toast equation, which meant she needed blackmail material on the school dean (the arbiter of such decisions). For that, she enlisted her boyfriend Chuck to temporarily seduce him so she could catch them in the act—harkening back to a game she and Chuck used to play wherein he would pretend to seduce girls and she would catch them.
And that was only like half the episode.
In other words, while Gossip Girl recalled The OC in a few obvious ways, it had an element of high-strung, gleefully absurd recklessness that show never had—while also being, dare I say, significantly darker. The defining images shifted away from sunny beaches to glistening NYC landmarks in the night, and that mindset extended to the writing. The OC thrived on wish fulfillment, not the least of which was the idea of living with Sandy and Kirsten Cohen, the perfect parents. In contrast, not a single character on Gossip lived in a successful two-parent household. In that way, they were like many of us.
The students on Gossip started out one year older than on the previous show—high school juniors instead of sophomores—but the gap felt bigger than that. We saw less of them in classes and more at clubs; some of them even owned the clubs. The sex was rawer, the drugs harder. At home, they were hit with the same emotional traumas that plague most teenagers; outside of it, they could take risks few of us can imagine. That’s what made it so fun.
They were also forced to grapple with more painful emotions. How many episodes in later seasons ended with an isolated Chuck finding out that scotch can’t cover up all his loneliness? Dan may have been a less empathetic version of Seth Cohen, but Seth—for all his social anxiety—was never burdened with a splintering family and financial difficulties. Marissa had her share of psychological problems, but nothing involving the Coopers ever felt as genuinely sad as the moment in season one when Eleanor told Blair why her father didn’t come to Thanksgiving dinner.
In truth, Gossip Girl nailed the messy relationships between the parents and their kids perhaps better than amongst the kids themselves. The relationships between Blair & Eleanor, Chuck & Bart, and Dan/Jenny & Rufus always managed to hit emotional truths. You understood how the kids became who they were, and I could find poignant similarities with my own upbringing. (I never got the limo rides to school, though.)
But it was the teens’ show, not the parents’, and the actors were able to bring to life character types drawn from The OC, Cruel Intentions, and historical royalty. Taylor Momsen, as Jenny, was a particular standout until she decided she’d rather be in a rock band—which, fair. Blake Lively (who, woah, was almost Jennifer Lawrence instead) and Chace Crawford couldn’t portray anything deeper than ain’t-life-grand giggles, but neither could Mischa Barton, and that never seemed to bother anyone.
[pullquote]Blair was both more ridiculous and more sincere than anyone you know, and Meester nailed the landing on everything. The fact that the far less talented Lively has since become the more in-demand actress is why we can’t have nice things.[/pullquote]
Everyone paled in comparison to Blair, one of my favorite fictional characters ever. Leighton Meester turned her into an awesome fireball of personality who always feared that she couldn’t force her way into being as popular as Serena. Blair had that scary skill that some people have of being able to instantly find someone’s weakness and pick at it, and nothing in the show was more fun to watch than her manipulating someone to get what she wanted. But the intimidation didn’t define her. We knew she just wanted her level of popularity and comfort with life to be commensurate with her smarts and style, and that it never would.
Blair was a microcosm of the show. She was so often pitched at an extreme frequency—see the way she shrieked at Dorota, “Don’t ever go to high school! The kids are spoiled, stupid, and ungrateful!”—but whenever she got serious, you surrendered to her completely. She was both more ridiculous and more sincere than anyone you know, and Meester nailed the landing on everything. The fact that the far less talented Lively has since become the more in-demand actress is why we can’t have nice things.
Blair was (nearly) matched by Chuck Bass, whom British actor Ed Westwick turned into a snarling, self-aware, sartorially splendid bad boy. Chuck wanted it all—respect from his father, love from beautiful women, a lifetime supply of scotch, and the finest purple shirts in all the land—but while Blair was most fun to watch succeeding, he was more compelling at rock bottom. Westwick’s drawling voice, especially in his darkest moments, recalled Nicolas Cage’s suicidal writer in Leaving Las Vegas, and there were certain episodes—like after his father’s death—where the force of Westwick’s intensity was astonishing.
He and Blair ran the show, the best and most stylish actors playing the most compelling and quintessentially Upper East Side characters. Their initial hookup, both unforeseeable and yet completely obvious in hindsight, was one of the show’s shrewdest magic tricks. They exuded so much sexual chemistry, just watching them could make you feel inadequate, which is why a lot of the best episodes put them in close proximity but not together, as if to test them: the early ones where they tried to take down Dan and/or Serena together, the Cruel Intentions/Dangerous Liaisons knockoff where Blair offered herself to Chuck if he could seduce Vanessa, the preposterously enjoyable lark with Chuck helping Blair babysit a wild-child with connections to Yale.
To make a reference absolutely no one will get: they even had a little of Nick and Nora Charles (heh) in them, that delightful couple of the 1930s and 40s Thin Man movies who occasionally took a break from flirting with each other, toying with high society guests, and matching each other’s drinking to solve murder cases for the fun of it.
[pullquote]Chuck and Blair ran the show, the best and most stylish actors playing the most compelling and quintessentially Upper East Side characters. They exuded so much sexual chemistry, just watching them could make you feel inadequate, which is why a lot of the best episodes put them in close proximity but not together, as if to test them. [/pullquote]
Too many teen dramas flop around like a wet noodle because they don’t have the guts to embrace conflict and messiness. They make their characters sniveling little weasels or ineffectual milquetoasts. But being on the Upper East Side, around people like Chuck and Blair, kept Schwartz from falling into that trap. Beneath the frivolity, he’s always been a softie (who creates a teen melodrama whose pilot features cocaine use, a threesome, and blacked-out teenagers, and then scores the pivotal sequence to Joseph Arthur’s “Honey and the Moon?”), and that helps effectively balance his shows. But the omniscient cloud of justice and judgment occasionally put a damper on The OC. By downplaying that element, Gossip Girl produced more genuine tension and honest acidity that was both more fun and more realistic.
To wit: check out the following exchange at a family breakfast where Bart is attempting to woo Serena’s mom Lily:
Bart: I want us all to be a family. Do you know what that means?
Chuck: Less money for me when you die?
“We’d just like to take a moment to appreciate the fact that Dan is still a cocky jerk to Chuck, despite the fact that Chuck caught him red-handed exploiting his dead-mother story. If this were any other teen drama… Dan would have repented about that in some way. Like he would have approached Chuck and been all, “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you” or whatever, but in a gruff, ungay way…. [and] they would have given each other backward glances before the commercial break and it would have been clear Dan at least tried and was therefore redeemable. But in Gossip Girl, he just kind of like rationalizes it to himself or whatever allows him to continue to be a douche, just like a dude would in real life.”
This aversion towards easy resolutions meant characters often clashed with each other over the course of several episodes, and it produced the best zingers. At one point in season two, Nate tried to console Dan, who was worried that he hadn’t gotten feedback about a story he’d written, by suggesting that maybe the reader simply lost cell phone service…to which Dan replied, “Wow, with an imagination like that, you should be a writer.” Later, Serena tried to encourage Blair to not blackmail a woman who might be able to get her into Yale with, “This family needs help,” and Blair fired back: “Well no argument there, they’re even more screwed up than yours.”
Everyone mostly took these kinds of comments in stride, allowing the show to move on to other things. They all had thick skin—which, funnily enough, makes them not very millennial at all.
We could enjoy this aspect of the show because it was clear that the characters still cared about each other. (Which isn’t to say the comments were disingenuous. Dan did think Nate was dim. He still invited him to live at their house when Nate was homeless.) Even Chuck at his worst still cared about Nate and/or Blair, and Serena would have taken a bullet for Dan even when they weren’t dating. For as much fun as there was in villainy, it still had to be checked. (Another interesting illustration of this: people in committed relationships never cheated on their partners. That’s not a path Schwartz seems to be interested in, and it’s refreshing.)
Perhaps more importantly, the show itself liked its characters. Painful moments in their lives passed with minimal judgment, and then it was time for another gala or masked ball. Memorably, the core group anointed themselves in season one as the “Non-Judging Breakfast Club,” and that tag stuck. When Blair slept with Nate and Chuck in the same week, we were meant to be less critical of that than of Chuck’s revealing that information to gossip girl; the cold stares from the disapproving students who heard Blair’s news were meant to put us more on her side, not less. When Serena was drunk at Blair’s house on Thanksgiving, there was no scorn from her parents, the show, or the audience. It was just another thing they had to deal with.
You were free to make your own judgments, and not everyone deserved the same one, but the show wasn’t doing satire. There’s a reason why most reckless behavior led to few consequences: they wanted to embrace the bad behavior without excessively condemning it. You could say that it was trying to have its cake and eat it, too, but that’s fine with me. I liked that we were still supposed to want to be best friends with everyone. I liked that, for as much as the show reflected and presaged the attitudes of its time, one modern trait it lacked was the thick coat of irony.
As far as I’m concerned, the show ended after season three’s tremendous finale. The latter three seasons suffered for most of the usual reasons, as well as a misguided belief that we cared about royalty so much that we wanted Blair to consider marrying a prince who couldn’t pronounce her name. This mindset is also how we got things like Dan and Blair (actually, strike that—we didn’t get Dan and Blair, because Dan and Blair never happened). And 90% of the scenes in the later seasons weren’t really scenes at all; they were exposition, or set-up, or designed to move someone from point a to b. There was no life in them, save for the occasional Chuck & Blair dalliance or anything involving Harriet the Spy’s Georgina Sparks. (Bizarrely, the decline in the show’s quality dovetailed with a precipitous drop in the cast’s attractiveness. Dan’s hair grew sentient, Blair started wearing strikingly un-flattering outfits, and Nate developed something on his lip so heinous that savvy viewers just assumed he had gone full method and contracted a herpes outbreak.)
Yet even the later episodes were fun to experience for the community that the show had built up, and reading the recaps on Vulture each week made me laugh so hard that anyone nearby assumed I was deranged. Given its rewatchability, presence on Netflix, and technological relevance, I’m hopeful that Gossip Girl will remain a part of our culture. If nothing else, the fashion will (I’m avoiding this topic simply because I’m the wrong person to talk about it), and the quotes should—it was always funnier than it got credit for. “For people like us, a college degree is an accessory, like a Malawian baby or a poodle.” “Once men have tasted caviar, it baffles me how they settle for catfish.” “I’m Chuck Bass—even Europeans must know what that means.” “Brown [University] is an enclave of trustafarians and children of celebrities who major in drum circles and semiotics, whatever that is.”
Yet it meant even more than that for a lot of people, including myself. When I rewatch episodes, I don’t just laugh at cleavage rhombuses (rhombi?) and Rufus’s devotion to waffles and Dorota’s awesomeness. I watch for the surprisingly resonant moments between characters who kept learning just how big that chasm is between what we think we want and how we actually live. There’s a conversation between Chuck and Blair in season four that basically sums up, in three chilling minutes, a series of fights I had with a significant other around that time, and that’s the power this crazy show had. There are amazing moments from my life that I will always associate with it. I’ll always remember where I was, who I was watching it with, and who talked to me about it afterwards. Like the characters themselves, I had my social life enhanced by being part of its world. It gave me things to share with other people, and reasons for them to talk about me. And as we know, you’re no one until you’re talked about.
All photos courtesy of the show’s Facebook page.