Monday, May 19, 2008

Gossip Girl: I'm sorta into it

Tonight is the season finale of Gossip Girl and I gotta say, I’m sorta into it.

Admittedly, I was late to jump on the Gossip Girl bandwagon. It’s not that I have anything against teen dramas—hell, My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer rank among my all-time favorite shows. But I don’t like lazily written teen soaps with an interchangeable cast of blandly attractive actors (this means you, Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and One Tree Hill).

Still, I should have been more optimistic. After all, Gossip Girl is helmed by O.C. wunderkind Josh Schwartz and, while I never became a full blown devotee of The O.C., that show did seem to have a brain in its head—not to mention a kickass soundtrack.

In the end, it was an article in New York magazine that compelled me to take a look at the series. New York magazine is one of my bibles—if they say Gossip Girl is the “Best. Show. Ever.” who am I to argue?

So I began to watch.

For those who don’t know, Gossip Girl is about the lives of prep school brats on the Upper East Side and is based on the wildly popular book series of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar (is that her real name? If so, awesome.)

The best thing about the show is the fabulously bitchy voiceover narration by Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell. I sometimes wish the show was actually as arch and insinuating as the narrator—but it comes close.

The rest of the casting is a mixed bag—a slightly too homogenously gorgeous white bunch in the classic teen soap mold—with two clear standouts.

The first is Leighton Meester who plays vulnerable mean girl Blair Waldorf. Not only is this girl a real beauty—she looks like a young, brunette Julianne Moore—but she can expertly handle both sides of Blair’s persona—the pouty goody-two-shoes/daddy’s little girl who gets thrown off course when daddy flees for France with his (male) lover, as well as the fabulously calculating queen bee of the prep school, all too aware of the precarious nature of her status. I recently saw Leighton on the Conan O’Brien show and I was amazed to see that she was kind of giggly and girlish and spazzy. On the show, she’s a world-class scene stealer.

The other standout is British import Ed Westwick who plays unrepentant bad boy billionaire Chuck Bass as though he studied at the knee of James Spader, circa his Pretty in Pink days. With his permanent sneer and narrow, suspicious eyes, this actor was born to play loche. (He can best be described as a cross between Joaquin Phoenix, Jimmy Fallon and Diablo, himself.) The wardrobe department—which is fabulous, series-wide—has outdone itself with the dandy-ish Chuck. He wears all sorts of gaudy/preppie togs: bright orange trench coats, hot pink and green argyle sweaters, and scarves—lots and lots of scarves. I was all for a pairing of Chuck and Blair (while on a break from good boy Nate she lost her virginity to Chuck in the back of a limo) until he told her that she was like an old Arabian—“rode hard and put away wet.” His misogyny makes him a touch hard to root for as a romantic lead.

While Blair may have the most screen time, the technical lead of the show is Serena van der Woodsen, played by Blake Lively. The young actress has the sun-kissed looks of a jetsetting Upper East side goddess, but she has the gravelly voice and blowsy cadence of a 45-year-old housewife from Boca—it’s a bit disconcerting. The actress is quite good, but she suffers when compared to Leighton, the show’s breakout star.

Her boyfriend Dan, a scholarship student who lives with his aging rock star dad and kid sis in an overly romanticized Brooklyn loft, is played by Penn Badgley (in a CW meets the real world touch, he dates Blake Lively in real life, too.) He’s a motor-mouthed, self-deprecating brain, a la Seth Cohen from The O.C. However, unlike Adam Brody—who was brilliantly neurotic in his depiction of Seth—Badgley’s Dan never sweats. He’s far too much the alpha teen; you don’t buy him for a second as the outsider.

Next we have gorgeous Chace Crawford as the aforementioned Nate. I vastly preferred his hair in the series premiere—slightly tousled, in that casual WASP way—to the David-Cook-style emo cut he’s rocking today. Not only does it give the impression that he’s losing his hair—he’s not— it’s just not that character appropriate. Then again, what character? Nate is the least developed of the young leads—he’s decent and kind of sad (hence the emo cut?) and he can’t make up his mind between Serena or Blair and Dartmouth or UC Berkley. Also, his dad’s a creep.

Yes, there are grownups, too. The best is Margaret Colin who plays Blair’s insecure fashion designer mom—pretty much the poster mom for creating a teenage bulimic (which Blair is.) Then there’s Matthew Settle as Rufus, Dan’s boringly sensitive rocker dad, and the remote Kelly Rutherford (did they cast these people for their gloriously waspy names?) as Blair’s brittle mum Lily.

Rounding out the cast, we have the CW’s idea of a bohemian (we know she’s a bohemian because she works at a coffee house and wears oversized earrings), Vanessa (Jessica Szohr), who secretly pines for Dan; Taylor Momsen as Dan’s social climbing little sis Jen; and much-needed new blood Michelle Trachtenberg as Georgina, Serena’s sworn frenemy (we know she's bad because she wears giant black sunglasses and lots of dark eyeliner).

So yeah, I like the show, despite its flaws. I wish there was more diversity among the cast—not necessarily ethnic diversity, although that would be nice. But there are more subtle character distinctions at a prep school than the haves and the have-nots. Why can’t there be a Julian Casablancas style trust fund rocker in the group? Or someone sporting the Mary Kate Olsen style billionaire homeless look? Or a hip-hop obsessed teen club impresario? That being said, Gossip Girl seems more relevant than any other show on TV. The characters text message and shop at Bendels and hangout at various real-life New York hotspots like Bungalow 8. They also make pop culture references: “Now you know how Katie Holmes feels” one character sympathizes when Jen finds out that her boyfriend is gay. (Zing!). The show is almost, dare I say, as fabulous as it tries to be.

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