Sunday, September 14, 2008


After undertaking to re-watch the first season of The OCsuch that I could write essays by the episode, a curious thing happened: I couldn't stop watching. The same vortex that ensnared me on its premiere had me again. This isn't to say that I've stopped - far from it - but to explain my curiously intertwined absence.

Gossip Girl is the sort of cultural phenomenon that can escape one entirely if they don't own a television and aren't plugged into the right circles. I know this because it happened to me. When I woke up one morning to find my days filled with blog subscriptions instead of my second job, I found a world with a show so popular it has its own tag on Gawker. And here I thought I was still with it?

Whereas Josh Schwarz's previous project, The OC came at the beginning of the TV revolution - DVR was a distinctly luxury item and streaming piracy was naught but a twinkle in the eyes of the college students who scoured the torrents for Canadian Television rips of network shows - GG arrived into a world whose television viewers were in control. Apart from this, and its meager challenge to the final season of The Wire for the title of "Cultural Item of Note: 2007-2008 Television Season Category," I can think of no other reason why Gossip Girl did not reach the pan-cultural, iconic status of The OC. Not only is it practically the same show, but it arrived in a culture even so status obsessed that it can sustain The Hills and an American edition of the British OK tabloid.

Gossip Girl is, in its essence, the refinement of The OC. A comparison less on its tastes, sentiments, or even a coastal rivalry, GG is Schwarz distilling the same plots, the same themes, and even some of the same characters through the filters of network lessons learned and East Coast location filming.

In his new series, Schwarz has matured not just in his style, but also in his content. In Episode 9, "The Heights," The OC is at its high school soap opera best. Even with its B-Plot of the Balboa Wetlands development project, it is a John Hughes movie writ television. The tomboyish friend who helps her guy friend crush get the other girl, the missed connections that nearly tear apart the nascent star-crossed teenage romance, the showdown on the soccer field where Ryan tackles his nemesis because he thinks Luke is still after his girl! In this episode, and indeed much of that which redeems the series, the is high school, or at least its cultural simulacrum. Distorted, Technicolor, glossed, and exaggerated but not so impossible as to take it completely out of the sphere of the shared experience.

Gossip Girl owes no allegiance to your petty nostalgia. Insomuch as school exists, it is purposeful background to absurd shenanigans. Sure, in Orange County there was the USC obsession, but in the Upper East Side the Ivy League application process involves courting your author/idol and outing your best friend as a recovering alcoholic. And if you're not at that school, you're a home-schooled filmmaker. Or whatever it is that Vanessa does when she's not turning Rufus's gallery into a cafe.

The OC thrived on contrivance. Characters drawn deep enough to like and shallow enough to turn the plot on the dime, wildly unlikable personas cast as unlikely heroes, aspirational locations and people and products. And though I'd be lying if I said GG weren't possessed of these same flaws, I'd be no less dishonest if I didn't admit it I loved it. In part for the same reasons that I got caught up in The OC in the first place, but also because GG, for all its flaws, seems- at least on first watching- to dig a little bit deeper for its story lines. Little J's pyrrhic war with Blair, Dan and Serena's romance, Rufus's tragi-comic love life. Though these stories on occasion fall victim to television's peculiar coincidences, they're driven by characters that both define and are defined by their experiences.

And it's not that Gossip Girl didn't open the second season with a bizarre series of wildly unlikely and unfortunate events that all led up to one wonderfully salacious payoff. But at least when GG does bad, it does bad incredibly well.

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