Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Television: Gossip Girl

I used to think I was one of those people who craves Deep, Meaningful Television in which everyone makes Very Serious Choices and faces Dramatic Yet Realistic Problems. Caps necessary on all fronts.

A few years back, I realized I was lying to myself. Yeah, I watch the occasional piece of DMT, but for the most part I’m a trashmonger. I want improbable and exciting plot twists, vile schemes, and characters who behave in horribly unrealistic horrible ways, possibly involving monsters and/or Secret Babies.

Bonus points if these characters are well-dressed and rich, making them eye candy with few limits on their schemes. Bonus bonus points if they harbour the sort of secrets that’re bound to blow up in everyone’s face. The more soap operatic my TV is, the more I love it.

Basically, GOSSIP GIRL is everything I've ever wanted and I’m mad at myself for letting it languish unwatched for so very, very long.

The premise: no teenager on New York’s Upper East Side is safe from Gossip Girl, a society blogger with a nose for scandal. Her particular targets are the friends (and frenemies) of one Serena van der Woodsen, a notorious party girl who fled Manhattan a year ago for unknown reasons. When Serena returns from her self-imposed exile and starts dating a Brooklynite (ugh), Gossip Girl steps up her game and chronicles the misdeeds of her favourite muse with ever-greater fervour over the next six years.

And I’m trying not to all-caps at you about it, because damn does this show ever know my wishlist. IT HAS ALL MY FAVOURITE THINGS, FRIENDS! ALL OF THEM!

(Well, all of them except space battles, killer robots, and people who can shoot fiery bolts out of their fingers, but I can forgive it for that.)

We're gonna need subheadings here. It's that kind of a show.

The Official List of Cool Stuff in Gossip Girl

Multiple characters have multiple random half-siblings apiece!

Multiple characters have Secret Babies!

Multiple characters fake their own deaths!

One character fakes having faked their own death, only to later reveal they faked having faked having faked their own death!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Someone has an affair with a priest!

Someone has an Evil Uncle!

There’s a super-duper intense adoptive parent-child relationship!

Most everyone has siblings or sibling stand-ins!


There are actors, and also a filmmaker!

Fucking well everyone is a fucking con artist!

Everyone is an asshole at least some of the time!

They’re all terribly well-dressed (and I'm in awe of Chuck Bass's wardrobe)!

In essence, GOSSIP GIRL is the CW distilled down to its most essential elements. IT IS SO GREAT Y’ALL IT IS SO VERY ME.

An Attempt At Analysis and Shit

I mean, it does have its flaws, foremost among these being its blinding whiteness and its commitment to heteronormativity. We can’t let those go unremarked-upon. Vanessa the Brooklyn filmmaker is the only brown character who makes it into the regular cast, and she doesn’t stick around very long. The casting directors make minimal effort to bring in POC guest stars. Eric, the only recurring gay character barring his occasional boyfriends, quickly heads off to college and leaves our screens forever.

Things are fairly predictable on the romance front, too, with the show clearly designed to utilize the traditional two-pairings-and-one-leftover structure. Of the two young women and three young men who stay with us from pilot to finale, four of them are almost always paired off with one another (or poised to pair off with one another) while the other lurks around the edges, searching for a way back in. The leftover romantic partner changes from time to time, but the pattern remains fairly static.

And when you get right down to it, I’m not sure the show’s central conceit makes sense. Gossip Girl is always there, always watching, and always prepared to post an update at a moment’s notice.

She’s also one of the recurring cast members, and I knew her identity going in thanks to a certain amount of outrage that trickled into my social media streams after the finale aired. I watched the whole show with this in mind, and while there are times when the story twists cleverly enough that I can believe the showrunners had this conclusion locked in from the start, there are also storylines where I’m really not sure it fits. There isn’t enough narrative space for Gossip Girl to make her moves both on screen and off.

I also fought to remain aloof from her right from the moment she was introduced, which kept me from fully engaging with her public character arc. I didn't figure there was much point in liking someone who'd no doubt be unmasked as a raging sociopath in the finale.

Really, I held myself somewhat aloof from everyone. GOSSIP GIRL is one of those rare shows where I delighted in the storylines without investing myself in the characters. I was more than happy to watch these wealthy teenagers scheme and preen and screw each other over every ten minutes because hey, that shit is entertaining, especially when it involves the sort of plot devices outlined above. I love stories about con artists. I love stories where rich people behave badly. I love gawking at gorgeous outfits.

That’s what GOSSIP GIRL was to me. Until all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

I cheered the characters on as they did terrible things to one another. I cringed at their horrible life choices and moaned over the epic fallout from each poor decision. I prayed they’d do more things; worse things; the worst things they could possibly think of.

And with this group of entitled rich kids and wannabes, the worst things were pretty damned bad indeed.

I wasn’t supposed to care about them, and I clung to this mandate until the worst thing I could possibly think of happened.

I fell into a ship.

Goddamned Fucking Ship

Y’all know I resist shipping (the act of hoping characters will get--and stay--together, not the act of sending parcels from one location to another). It almost always backfires for me. My ships are long shots. They sink like stones. And before they die a terrible, messy, never-gonna-happen-never-gonna-stick death, they make me giggle.

Fucking bastards.

In this particular case, not only did I know deep in my soul that my ship was doomed to failure, but I recognized I had let the entire GOSSIP GIRL-loving world down by rooting for these two characters to get together. Hell, given what I’d heard before I started it seemed likely I’d set myself up for a ship war, and I had no idea how to prosecute a ship war.

It was a ghastly, stressful situation, and the giggling did not fucking help.

But friends, I cannot dodge the issue. I must admit my shortcomings.

It was Dan and Blair. I shipped--and cannot stop shipping, even now--Dan and Blair.

In the beginning, I tried hard not to be charmed by their friendship. Then I told myself I had absolutely no opinion on Dan’s romantic feelings for Blair, because there were too many no-way-nuh-uh factors.

I did a brilliant job on that front, really, until this one particular scene made my fucking traitor of a heart perform the traditional Backflips of Joy.

The giggling started almost as soon as I’d finished swearing my arse off and all-capsing my rage on Twitter.

Those Asshole Characters

Maybe the worst part of shipping Dan and Blair was how it snapped my feelings for the other characters into sharp focus. All of a sudden, I realized I really, really cared if Rufus and Lily stayed together (even though it wasn’t, and isn’t, a ship-level engagement). I wanted Ivy to get her family back. I loved the strong bond between Chuck and Lily, even as I thrilled to how Chuck is basically the CW’s entire mandate in the form of a single character. (Nobody has more [spoiler] than Chuck Bass. NOBODY1.) I hoped Jenny had her life together and managed to maintain her siblingship with Eric.

If I wasn’t as invested in Serena or Nate, I wasn’t indifferent to them, either.

(Though I do think Nate’s whole character arc involves him trying sososo hard not to be a Boring White Guy, only to get dragged back into Boring White Guyhood at regular intervals. I still haven’t stopped laughing over how Dan has to combine him with Eric to get a full character.)

GOSSIP GIRL’s characters are often terrible, but they’re rarely unsympathetic. Even at their worst, they have layers and dreams and strong motivations that drive them forward, coupled with a desire to connect with one another and find a place in the world at large. Forgiveness is often necessary within this frenemy group, but it’s also always possible.

I’m a big fan of forgiveness as a transformative act, but the nicest thing about it is that you don’t owe it to anyone. When you do it, you do it for yourself as much as for the other person; a selfish bend that fits in well with GOSSIP GIRL’s overarching themes.

Which isn’t to say I always agree with the characters who choose to bestow it. There are a few cases where I really, really wish certain individuals hadn’t been quite so willing to forgive and move on. Some stuff you can chalk up as poor judgement. Some stuff you can't2.

Let’s Hear It For the Ladies

The dramamonger in me loves this frequent bend towards misbehaviour (and the one- to three-episode forgiveness arc that inevitably follows on its heels). The part of me that longs for complex characters delights in how the women are usually the worst-behaved of the bunch, and how in most (though alas, not all) cases they aren’t coded as absolute villains.

We root for them, even when they’re awful; maybe especially when they’re awful, since we hope they’ll do better in the future. We feel for them when their transgressions cost them everything they’ve fought for. And we have no desire to see them beaten into the ground over any of it.

This is so, so important to me. Like, Jenny makes a slew of awful life choices and hurts everyone, including herself, but even at her worst we can see the factors that led her down her path. And, most importantly, we see that she can come back from it. Maybe things won’t--can’t--be the same afterwards, but she isn’t punished forevermore or anything terrible like that. Things hurt her, but nothing destroys her.

The same is true of Blair, who shocked the hell out of me by emerging as my favourite.

Blair is a Mean Girl. She has minions rather than friends, and anyone she decides she dislikes is in for a hell of a bad time of it. Because Blair often fails to see other people as people. She views them solely as accessories in her own Game of Life. People with less money or fewer family connections than her fall prey to her rampant snobbery. People from her own social circle are just stepping stones she can use and discard in her quest to become a Powerful Woman (which is totally an actual career).

I should hate her; and yet, she’s the one I miss the most now this wild ride has pulled to a stop. Even when Blair does terrible things--which is much of the time--actress Leighton Meester and the writers find the humanity and the humour behind her actions. Despite her machinations, Blair is difficult to take seriously as an evil force because she often enacts her schemes in such silly, self-centred ways. While my interpretation certainly isn’t the only one possible, I see her as a wilful, determined person whose skewed view of the world often leads her into catastrophe, but who is neither incapable of change or willing to give up once she’s set her sights on something. She may reevaluate her position, but she never, ever abandons all hope.

Because while she suffers setbacks and endures a hefty amount of grief over the consequences of her decisions--she’s a CW character on this most CWish of CW shows--there’s always a way forward. There’s always something else she can try, and few things keep her down for very long. Not even the ones that initially seem insurmountable.

TL;DR: Blair Waldorf is my favourite and I miss her a lot.

And In Conclusion

GOSSIP GIRL won't float everyone’s boat. It’s a Rich People Behaving Badly show, and it assumes you’ll delight in everyone’s depravity at least as often as you cringe over it. If you’re into Jackie Collins, though, or if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the CW’s output, I recommend you give GG a try. Don’t worry if you bounced off the books; I did, and the show is now one of my favourite things.

Maybe it’ll be one of yours, too.

  1. And yet--shocking spoiler coming up--he somehow makes it through six seasons without acquiring a Secret Baby. I can't understand it. The evidence (which: the two times Blair thought she was pregnant after she and he had secretive sex) indicates he's not exactly careful about birth control, and the dude has a phenomenal amount of sex. As if no one's ever presented him with a three-year-old kid who shares his DNA.

  2. Spoiler: giving someone fake cancer is unforgiveable. I mean, maybe you can move past it if you do it when you're fifteen and you're still discovering your personality and your limits (and you're somehow able to convince someone they have cancer even though you're fifteen years old and not not even remotely a doctor), but forty-year-olds should fucking well know better.


  1. I used to love these books. Having never watched the show, I read this whole post and now sort of want to. I'm not sure I have the same capacity for Rich People Behaving Badly, but boy, I can enjoy it in small-to-medium doses. Maybe I just need to watch an episode per week or something.

    1. Good luck with the restraint! I managed to keep my viewing schedule all reasonable and orderly throughout S1, but after that I had no choice but to binge until S6 began doing its dodgy, dodgy things.

  2. This is such a great post! And it brings me back into all those GG feels! I initially watched the show when it was on air, but I quit after season 3 or so. Not really consciously, it just kind of slipped away from my notice. But then years later I decided to finish the whole series. In the interim, I found out the identity of Gossip Girl, so when I watched the entire series I had that in mind. I agree: I think that it works overall, but there were times when it seemed a bit of a stretch. But the way I look at it now is that, who else could it have been to be such a shock? Anyone else and people would have said, "Oh, right. Yeah." It wouldn't have been a big deal. And for the CW to keep it a secret for 6 seasons, they needed the reveal to be a big deal. So for me, it makes sense, even if it wasn't always realistic.

    I totally shipped Dan and Blair for a while, but my GG OTP of Chuck and Blair just couldn't allow it for long. But I do feel you, there. We can always imagine an alternate universe where Dan and Blair end up together. It's full of dinner parties and banter and they split their time between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it's glorious.

    Wonderful post!

    1. I love this AU. Part of me wants to look for fanfic.

  3. I honestly have never felt this was my sort of thing at all, but one never knows... I should at least give it a try before saying that! Not that I really watch TV...

    1. It's trashy fun with lots of great fashion and iconic NYC cameos.

  4. I watched Gossip Girl for the first time last year. I like DMT and crime shows (basically anything made by the BBC) so Gossip Girl felt ... beneath me (wow, I'm a snob). BUT I LOVED IT SO MUCH. It's my own deep dark secret. I cried in the last episode and was angry that it was over.

    1. I mourned it when I'd finished, even though I didn't enjoy S6 as much as what'd come before. (I'll never stop cringing over Rufus's final storyline. Never.)

  5. Ugh, I was and remain angry with rotten Jenny for turning into such a brat, AND for a while that actress (whose name I've forgotten) was turning up all over the place a horrible mess and making me think sad and guilty thoughts about child actresses and the Hollywood industrial complex. NOBODY NAMED JENNY IS EVER AWESOME. (See also: Jenny from The L-Word, a show I have never seen and yet I STILL know that Jenny is the Worst.)

    1. But Jenny, YOU are an awesome Jenny! You've paved the way for Jennys everywhere to do and be more than what pop culture insists is possible!

      Which, yeah, is pretty dismal. Why does pop culture want to destroy people named Jenny? I spent so much of GOSSIP GIRL saying, "Oh, Jenny. No."

  6. So... You like the show, then? ;)