Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Notes on Gossip Girl and reflections on The O.C.

I had never seen an episode of The O.C. until early last summer. I watched the first couple of episodes online, immediately became hooked, and bought all four seasons on DVD in rapid succession. If I had watched it on television, I probably would have gotten bored and possibly lost interest during the second or third season. But I was able to power through the entire series in less than two weeks, which is fortunate for me because the fourth season was my favorite by far. It was campy, it was self-aware - it was everything I've ever wanted in a television show! This past winter, I introduced Ed to The O.C. and we watched the whole series together. While watching the show for a second time, I was more attuned to the gradual transition in tone, as the irony and self-parody became more overt. I loved that transition. And yet, even at the end, when the show was utterly ridiculous and farcical, it maintained a sense of sincerity. No matter how absurd the characters became, the audience was still expected to care about them.

So I'm thrilled to see that Gossip Girl has already embraced this tone, without making any real attempt to be subtle or gradual about it. (Which I think is good, because while I enjoyed the evolution of The O.C., some viewers misread the ever decreasing realism as a drop in quality.) I just adore the almost uncanny sense of self-awareness that both shows exhibit. It feels as though, as the show goes along, it knows that you're watching it, and it's anticipating your reactions, and it's in on the joke. So the audience is laughing along with the show, at the show. It creates this sensation that the television show is your friend. (Kind of, in a sense. Whatever, don't worry about it, I have real live people friends, too, okay!!!)

Also, this genre isn't exactly fresh. Not only have all the "attractive teenagers getting into trouble" narrative threads been rehashed over and over on countless television shows, but they have also occurred over and over in actual high schools. The fact is, teenagers' lives tend not to be particularly unique, even if the teenagers in question are fictional and exceptionally wealthy and attractive. And yet we find teenagers, especially fictional, wealthy, attractive teenagers, endlessly entertaining, because adolescence is a tumultuous and formative time in everyone's life, which makes teenagers inherently interesting. So why not take those familiar high school themes and send them completely over the top, why not simultaneously mock and indulge them? Most of the best television shows about teenagers do this to some extent, but Gossip Girl pushes the silly self-parody so much further.

So far this season, things are looking pretty indulgent indeed, especially for Blair. (And since I can't help but see Blair as the protagonist, the show feels indulgent to me, too.) Last season, we saw Blair as Holly Golightly. In this last episode, she got to be Scarlett O'Hara. Oh, and she's dating a Lord while Chuck seethes with envy and plots to win her back? Blair basically gets to embody the fantasies of every girl, ever. Or, at least, every moderately imaginative, slightly prissy, somewhat cultured and/or well-read girl ever. Who does she get to allude to next? Juliet? Cleopatra? And she gets all the wittiest lines! (There were so many amazing and hilarious lines in this episode, I really wish I had a DVR already so I could quote them verbatim!) Although, speaking of Blair's relationship with the Lord, I am having such a hard time persuading myself that Marcus and Catherine are not some sort of con-artist couple. The fact that Catherine gave money to Nate and is a friend of his mother indicates that I am probably wrong about this, but I just cannot accept that they are actually a Lord and a Duchess. It's probably just because Patrick Heusinger, the actor who plays Lord Marcus, is so ridiculously unconvincing in this role.

Let's see...It's cute that Nate is getting a little bit of plot. The show is so explicit about the fact that he is pure eye-candy. It's great. Chuck needs to lose his creepy new hairstyle. I think Jenny's Project Runway themed plotline is fun. I don't care about Dan and Serena, because Dan is pompous and annoying and Serena is just too consistently goodhearted and well-intentioned to be interesting. But they may as well get back together sooner rather than later, because they are more appealing as a couple than as individuals. Oh, also, Jitney sex, gross, of course. Rufus and Vanessa flirting is also gross, of course, but I don't really care about them, either. Eric is fun. Dorota is fun. Watching silly and indulgent television is fun. Yay, Gossip Girl.

I'm glad Gossip Girl is so good at product placement. Hopefully that will generate enough profit to keep the show on the air for a few seasons, even if the ratings are lackluster. I'd rather see the show "sell out" with elegant and well-integrated product placement than by altering the tone of the show in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience.


Anonymous said...

This is exactly what I have been thinking about Gossip Girl this season, but I don't know anyone else who watches it so I haven't been able to comment. It was always very self-referential in the way that it exploited/mocked/paid tribute to the real lifestyle and social world that it's characters belong to. But you are right, this season it has shifted tone further into the mocking and it's only getting more fun to watch! It's clever. It's self-aware. It actually reminds me a bit of the show Popular which was also campy, clever and self-referential. Sadly it was very short-lived. I hope you are right about the product placement keeping it alive.

I also agree with you that Blair is the secret protagonist, more so now because she's a camp/comic diva genius. I was reading the Marcus/Catherine thing the same way and I STILL think it might end up being some kind of hoax on Blair in the end. Especially because there is an odd emphasis in the way Marcus refers to her as "The Duchess"... it may as well have a parenthetical "in bed" after it.

And I ((heart)) Chuck, but yes, the hairstyle needs to go. Would it be over-the-top to say that I think the hairstyle is ruining his characterization? It just doesn't seem to go with the wacky old riche style (the scarves, the plaid etc.) that we've seen on Chuck so far.

Serena and Dan are becoming the Meredith and McDreamy of this show. It's difficult to care anymore and I think it might continue to be dragged on (and off-again) ad nauseam.

Caitlin said...

Hey Bonnie,

I totally agree with you that "Gossip Girl" is reminiscent of "Popular," which was great in its attempts at skewering the genre. Unfortunately, I think maybe "Popular" failed because it just wasn't quite clever enough. And maybe audiences weren't ready for such campy and self-referential silliness.

And I don't think it's that ridiculous to say that Chuck's hairstyle is kind of bringing down his character overall. His whole appeal is rooted in his unique style of dress and demeanor. And in order to make that work, they do have to take risks with his look, but when those sartorial choices backfire, they REALLY backfire.

Anonymous said...

So what do you think now that they have put Serena at the top of the heap, knocking Blair off her perch? And, I'm sorry the Lord and Duchess seem to be gone, they were good antagonists.