Test Pilot: File #8, Gossip Girl

Test Pilot #8: Gossip Girl

Debut date: September 19, 2007

Series legacy: Shinning beacon in today’s slate of teen dramas

Welcome to the newest regular feature here at TV Surveillance, the fantastically titled, Test Pilot. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.

We have now entered to the second quadrant of Test Pilot Files. After touching base with four of the medium’s most important series of the current era with a fair amount of success, this space is now kind of open to whatever direction we would like to take it. For the next batch, it’s time to explore my favorite genre of television texts, teen dramas! Teen dramas represent an interesting conundrum, as the critical community usually avoids them or derides them, yet there is certainly an audience out there for this kind of series. Despite that schism, there’s no questioning the fact that teen dramas have value in American television. Perhaps more so than any other genre, they exist in a very specific moment that can tell us things about the how, what, when, where and why they came to be and were successful. Teen dramas depict trends of certain times with relative ease and serve as time capsules for their moment. But how do the genre’s capstone series relate to one another? How do they differ? What have been the evolutions in the cycle since the early 1990s? That’s what we hope to discuss over the next four entries.

This is the final entry in our teen drama exploration and because of my schedule and other wonky things, the last Test Pilot of 2010. Don’t worry, we’ll be back with this well-received feature in 2011, but for once in my life, I’m actually going to let me Christmas break be a break, so anyway. Because we’ve decided to tackle this quadrant chronologically, I think there’s been a nice historical arc sketched from the debut of the original Beverly Hills 90210 to today’s entry, 2007’s Gossip Girl. And though it is obvious that we’re closing with Gossip Girl and not exploring some well-regarded, but quickly discarded teen drama (My So-Called Life, for example, was strongly considered), I think it makes sense considering Gossip Girl basically completes the full circle of the genre cycle by being more or less like a 21st century 90210. Rich white people, just different coasts. Anyway, to discuss the CW’s most talked about series, I’ve brought in a former IDS colleague of mine, Brett Eppley. Brett has been reviewing Girl for my old stomping grounds, WEEKEND Watchers, and covers all sorts of other good television over there as well, so check that out. Thus, he is of course the veteran presence in today’s discussion. Brett, take it away my friend:

Since its debut in 2007, Gossip Girl has always been guilty pleasure viewing. The title of the show itself sets the stage for snarky dialogue and devious characters that most of us couldn’t fathom.

Thankfully, through the years, watching Gossip Girl has become a lot less guilty.

Rich kids doing the things half of us couldn’t imagine is a draw that’s almost unstoppable: something the pilot was counting on. Unfortunately, this first foray into the Upper East Side was missing a few things that really make the series strong today.

Four seasons in, the show knows the value of comedy, something completely void in this first episode. A line from Blair’s mother like, “you’ll never be more beautiful, or thin, or more happy than you are now,” didn’t make me laugh, it was painfully awkward. Today, the show approaches situations like these with a wink, fully in on the joke.

Perhaps in the beginning, GG was too worried with impressing us; drowning us in all the fashion, drama and prestige. Moving on the show has figured out how to balance these while making it an enjoyable experience, not an alienating one.

One thing I was shocked to find as I revisit the pilot is how extremely unlikable some of these characters are. Case in point: Chuck Bass.

Chuck has never been the absolute hero of the show, but the first hour in, he manages to attempt not one, but two rapes. It’s surprising that a character that was made to be such a villain is still on the show three years later. As I mentioned before, comedy was missing here. Nowadays, Chuck delivers some of the funniest bits each week. However, I will thank the writers of the show for not handing us an obvious redemption story in the form of the Chuckster; he’s still just as twisted as ever.

A little more obvious? The downfall of the Humphreys. A father trying to keep his kids grounded as they entered high society was bound to fail, and pretty predictable. Guess they were just borrowing the Beverly Hills, 90210 formula here.

Rewatching the pilot now, I also realize something so obvious I hadn’t noticed it before: Gossip Girl is the first teen drama, or show for that matter, living in the age of social media.

In 2006, Facebook was opened up to anyone 13 or older with a working email address, and Twitter was a startup company that same year. In 2007, Twitter took off. This isn’t to say that the show wouldn’t have worked without them, but I’m honestly not sure it could have.

GG encapsulates the mentality of the Facebook generation. Every picture we take must be posted and tagged. Every action must become a status, leaving behind a virtual paper trail. It’s our fondness of celebrity and all that comes with it that feeds into these activities, and fuels this show.

Celebrity gossip blogger, Perez Hilton, started his now infamous site in 2005 but saw a boom in site traffic in 2007. Ever since, the site seems to have become more and more popular. Hilton’s influence is clear in this pilot episode as we get a peek at the fictional Gossip Girl blog, decked out in pink, just like Hilton’s.

Of course, in the end, I know Gossip Girl is like many of my favorite show’s pilot episodes. Certain aspects were amped up to get our attention (sex, drugs and cool Verizon Wireless phones), and it worked. We kept coming back for more and things paid off.

The show has found it’s fun, soapy stride and still has a pilot to be proud of—even if it was a little misguided.

And now, my take, as someone who has seen all of the first season but quickly jumped ship early in season two, for reasons I just cannot remember or care to remember:

If you remember from my extremely long ode to The OC during the last Test Pilot entry, I really, really loved that series. And it’s probably because of that love that for the most part, I kind of hate Gossip Girl, or at least certainly did during the early part of its run. I was still broken, beaten and confused at the lack of support for The OC and as soon as it was off the air in February of 2007, it seemed like Gossip Girl was picked up to series and Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage had a new glamorous teen drama toy to play with. And it was based on a best-selling book series. Ugh. I felt betrayed.

When I watched the first few episodes of season one, those feelings really didn’t go away. The characters of GG felt either like rote types of the teen drama characterization or blatant replacements for what in my mind were better, more subtle versions of those characters from The OC. Let’s do some quick Gossip Girl-OC math: Serena = Marissa, Blair = Summer, Dan = Ryan and Seth’s love child (HE PUNCHES SOMEONE), Jenny = Kaitlin Cooper, Rufus = Poor man’s Sandy Cohen, Nate = post-douche Luke, Chuck = Oliver turned up to 15 without the medication. It’s so obvious. Of course, it’s not like The OC created the types of characters it featured throughout its run, they just made them seem like real, mostly likable or at least sympathetic people. Well, except for Oliver, but hey, Schwartz was young.

In short, the characters populating the Upper East Side were like all the awful people that Ryan, Seth, Summer and Marissa ended up staying away from during their time at Harbor because they were total tools. And I just couldn’t get why Schwartz and Savage would want to write for characters like this when they had just stopped writing for a boatload of lovable folks that helped The OC become something of a phenomenon. Aside from money and a job, of course.

As time went on in the first season, I began to like some of Gossip Girl‘s characters more, most notably Chuck and Blair, but to this day, it still feels like a sexier, emptier rip-off of The OC and I can’t watch it for that reason. There’s something to be said for The OC‘s attempts in at least trying to convince us that Ryan was poor or Seth was a nerd, with Gossip Girl, especially in episode’s after the pilot, it doesn’t feel like that effort is there. From the beginning, Gossip Girl has been more about the melodramatic aspects of the teen drama framework than the characters themselves. And I know that’s the case for most series in the genre, but in the pilot and in almost every episode I’ve seen since then, there’s no heart to Gossip Girl. It’s pure style, pure image and I guess that’s fine for a lot of people. But not for me. I know that I’m bitter, but that’s why I’m putting this all out front, you need to know my position.

I mentioned up top that this series feels like a legitimate successor to the original 90210 — unless, the second 90210 is now the successor, I dunno — but I think it is perhaps a successor to what people like to remember about 90210, if that makes sense. So people assume that teen dramas, particularly the massively popular ones, are overly melodramatic and soapy, and for the most part they are. But in some ways, Gossip Girl seems even less interested in any sort of interesting characters than 90210 was.

Instead, Gossip Girl relies fully on style. The music, the technology, the locations and of course, the clothes. And based on the extratextual content on the series from web sites like Gawker, Vulture or whatever else, that’s all anyone in the media cares about. People seem to enjoy Gossip Girl for everything but the series itself. Gawker seems to cover the series extensively, but their recaps and other posts seem to focus on less on the full details of the story or characters, and more on the fashion, locations and the drama on-set. Ah, the joys of shotting on location in NYC.

And I don’t know if it’s just the era or what, but I can’t remember there being a series covered so much for things that don’t really have to do with the series itself. I guess these are the glories of the internet era. But what this makes me think of, and I know I’m discussing it again, but it seems pertinent to our discussion about Gossip Girl: Can a straight-up teen drama ever be traditionally popular again?

If you were to ask most critics, scholars or even people on the street what the most popular teen drama on television was, they’d surely say Gossip Girl and for the most part, they’d be totally correct. But do you know what the average viewership of the series is, including DVR +7 ratings? Less than three million people. I know it’s the CW, there are probably a few million people watching online and we’re in 2010, but that’s still a small amount of viewership.

However, the series gets discussed in the media as if it’s something of a hit, but in reality, it’s really not even close. This isn’t a knock on Gossip Girl, but if the biggest teen drama in American television gets less viewers than a random episode of Kate Plus Eight or something, that says a lot about the genre itself. Gossip Girl is also well-respected by people other than me, so it’s not like the genre itself is hurting for quality, just traditional kinds of viewers.

Of course, the series is full of product placements and other branding maneuvers that bring in a whole lot of ancillary money as well, but I’m wondering if the teen drama, in the most traditional sense, is something of a dying breed. The newer iterations the CW has tried to nurse into success like the 90210 remake, Hellcats and others haven’t really made a lot of noise. Vampire Diaries works, but it’s gone away from the teen drama angst, and Glee is a massive hit, but that has way more to do with the music than anything else. As long as the CW is still around, there will probably be teen dramas or something like them on television. But from everything we’re seeing with their developmental strategies, most of the series are teen dramas…with a twist. There seems to be an indication that no one wants basic teen dramas about kids in high school anymore, and while I don’t think Gossip Girl is to blame for that, there might be some exploration needed there to really figure out what’s happening.

If we turn now to my presumption that the teen drama always represents the time in which its produced, I think Gossip Girl continues to push that fact forward. All the problems critics seem to have with Millennials — lazy, self-involved, technological-reliant, aimless, etc. — seems to be captured in a snapshot within the series. This people don’t have any real problems, not even like Ryan or Seth had on The OC, instead, all their concerns are personal and self-involved on the highest level. There’s so much in Gossip Girl that’s about social status and climbing that ladder that is simply not appealing to me, but again I think it definitely taps into the zeitgeist in a lot of ways. More now than ever before, we seem to enjoy watching rich white people talk about their “problems,” as a form of escape, to make ourselves feel better or a nice combination of both. I haven’t decided which is more powerful.

And again, I think that relates back to my discussion of style. 21st century popular culture is so reliant on style and image, probably more so than any other era, and Gossip Girl certainly embodies that. As Brett intelligently mentioned, the series is certainly in-tune with the explosion of social media, blogs, internet gossip, etc. and again, that seems easily related back to style and image. People on the series are always worried about what they do getting back to Gossip Girl, but at the same time, they kind of like it too. There’s an interesting destruction of the public and private that Gossip Girl reflects back to us, and though it doesn’t really have any interest in engaging with that dynamic with a critical view, it’s definitely an interesting space of discourse.

I feel myself straining for things to really discuss in regards to Gossip Girl itself, and that’s probably fitting. When people talk about Gossip Girl it never feels like they’re talking about the series itself, so I might as well stop trying to do so. Instead, I thought it’d be smart to take this space to look back on the four series we’ve discussed (original 90210, Dawson’s Creek, The OC and GG) and point out some of the changes that we’ve seen over time. Obviously, the latter two are more scandalous and risqué than the former two, but if you recall the discussions we had in reference to 90210 and Creek, they had just as many problems with outraged parents, political committees or whomever else was randomly angry during those points in the 1990s.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel as if there could be another “hit” teen drama. I mean what could a new CW series DO that hasn’t been done and would piss off parents? I’m not sure where you can really take things on broadcast television at this point and perhaps this is why the road is ending for the genre in its most purest form. I dunno, you tell me.

Moreover, the teen dramas of recent years are certainly more interested in the consumerist ideas and far less interested in BIG MESSAGE episodes about drugs, abortion, gay relationships or anything like that. It’s as if there are no more taboos — or at least taboos we can see on broadcast television — that a teen drama can bring up that will drum up interest. Instead, they have to rely on fun guest stars, random celebrity appearances or musical performances, which again just brings it all back to style and image. And that seems like a nice place to leave off.

Conclusions on legacy: Fully representative of the era it’s produced in, for better and for worse, totally reliant on style, but still apparently worth discussion.

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