It's a shallow person who doesn't judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
-- Oscar Wilde
The credits for Gossip Girl show a wash of flare and color, random shapes that coalesce into a quick vision of neon-lit Manhattan. The soundtrack opens with a barely decipherable whisper: "Where's she been, Serena?," layered on top of a bank of new wave keyboards to which drums are soon added, as well as the voice of program narrator/title character Kristen Bell: "And who am I? That's one secret I'll never tell...You know you love me," she coos, as the city skyline is cleverly transformed into the letters of the show's title. "Xoxo!...Gossip Girl."
It's a fantastic opening for the show, hinting at Gossip Girl's decadent plasticity and glamour, and offering up narrative clues in the elusive, opaque manner of "Gossip Girl" herself: we hear just enough to pique our curiosity, and the rest we have to work through on our own (and only if we're willing to partake of the shallow fun the program offers).
Best known for the late and very lamented The O.C., Gossip Girl producer Josh Schwartz often tosses up these stylistic puzzles for viewers to work out, and in general said viewers are well-rewarded. When it debuted in the late summer of 2003, The O.C. was an immediate hit: by cannily starting in August, a month before most new shows, it positioned itself to its core demographic of teenage viewers, who were then out of school; surprisingly, it also found a following among critics, who responded to what The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin called its “seductive quality… As Sandy drives, we leave behind a world of harsh heat, concrete, and graffiti and head up the coast, passing surfers and young men playing touch football on the beach in the orangey-pink light of a summer afternoon. This, you have to admit, looks pretty enticing.” Even so, that pleasure was often packaged with apologetic caveats, best summarized by PopMatters’ Mary Colgan: “It's a guilty pleasure akin to gorging on fast food or listening to bubblegum pop -- lots of us do it, but we don't like to talk about it.”
Many of the strongest reviews—even among critics who didn’t like the show—were for Peter Gallagher’s portrayal of “cool dad” and public defender Sandy Cohen. NPR, The Boston Herald, and USA Today all noted his performance as the standout among the cast, with Entertainment Weekly’s Carina Chocano writing, “Gallagher, in particular, is sublime as the Bronx-raised, Beamer-driving fairy godfather whose moral compass is stuck on do-gooder even when he is headed in the opposite direction," and Rick Kushman of The Sacramento Bee noting, “Gallagher plays [Cohen] with earnestness and flashes of a lost boy.’
That Peter Pan allusion was prophetic, as The O.C. quickly became a totem for both the young and the young-at-heart. The program’s young stars became the fodder of teen magazines and Internet fansites, their characters the subject of online fanfiction and quickie novelizations, their fashions the source of magazine layouts, and the show’s music—its hipster calling card—staples of the pop and alternative charts. That the program quickly burned out, after four quick seasons, only added to its James Dean-like, teenage charms. Like a wonderfully shiny pop band, it was here, it made a lot of sweet noise, and then it was gone.
The trick of the show was embodied in those responses to Gallagher's Sandy Cohen (of which, this one, from Sarah Vowell, is my absolute favorite): beneath the trashy glamour and teen glitz was a heartfelt, gorgeously written and acted program about family, desire, responsibility and the ties that bind (and sometimes keep us from moving forward).
No, that's not quite right-- it's not "underneath" the glitz where we find the heart of Josh Schwartz's aesthetic, but inside it, alongside it, intertwined with the seemingly disposable plastic surfaces. Like many a great TV auteur, Schwartz is canny enough to know that meaning is not a thing, but a process, and often where we least expect it-- not in a pompous, self-serious drama, but somewhere closer to the margins, in seemingly "disreputable" genres like science fiction (Battlestar Galactica), the gangster drama (The Sopranos), or the teen melodrama (with Buffy The Vampire Slayer being the most obvious antecedent to a show like The O.C.).
As Kushman said of Gallagher's performance as Sandy, it's an aesthetic of both earnestness and flashes. For all of his fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Schwartz's approach is remarkably free from snobbery: he insists on providing both the escapist goofiness, gorgeous fashions and snarky one-liners and the three-dimensional characters and life lessons that teen narratives often encompass. The result is a kicky cocktail, a slightly unstable but remarkably potent mix whose pathos are all the more affecting for the way they sneak up on you.
Gossip Girl-- based on a series of teen novels by Cecily von Ziegesar that I have not read-- was actually one of two shows Schwartz had on the air in the 2007-2008 season, and on first glimpse, each seemed to take a bit of The O.C.'s DNA. The other show, the NBC spy comedy Chuck, felt like the kind program The O.C.'s Seth might have made if he grew up and became a TV producer: smart, self-aware, action-packed-but-self-deprecating, and very sweet. It seemed to get The OC's character-driven heart, while the seemingly more disposable Gossip Girl, lying at the heart of the tween-centric CW's fall programming, looked like it got the glitzy surfaces, melodramatic angst, and snarky self-referentiality.
Ah, but as Gossip Girl reminds us, first impressions are often deceiving. Chuck is rather wonderful, and I highly recommend it, but Gossip Girl is much like its central hero, the reformed party girl Serena: there's a lot more happening there than you might think. Exceedingly well-written and acted, and full of the textured gloss we came to expect on The O.C., Gossip Girl's surface, material pleasures shouldn't be denied (I mean, I write a blog called Bubblegum Aesthetics, so my house is a pretty glass one in this respect, anyway). Indeed, it's those surface pleasures that allow us access to the program's deeper pleasures. The O.C. offered a wide-open, sunkissed mise-en-scene of beaches in long-shot, pastels and bright blues, surf-crashed waves and skateboard-ridden boardwalks. It was all big and airy, and the dialogue bounced around it like a puppy romping in an open field. Gossip Girl is set in a fractured fairy tale version of New York's Upper East Side-- it's all cramped rooms and busy sidewalks and skyscrapers whose towering verticality encloses its inhabitants only slightly less than their stifling social rituals. Dark blues, greens, and tweedy browns replace The O.C.'s brighter colors, and ascots replace bikinis and tube tops as the show's fashion signifiers. The dialogue is no less bright or funny or heartfelt, but it's less like banter than the witty cut of a knife (there are a lot of ghosts intentionally hanging around the lot-- Cruel Intentions, Igby Goes Down, All About Eve).
Maybe, therefore, another turn back to The O.C. might be helpful here. “One might call “poetic” (without value judgment) any discourse in which the word leads the idea,” Roland Barthes declared. Such an approach might describe The OC’s modus operandi.
--“Honey, I’m mid-shmear”;
--“Way to salt his game, honey”;
--“It’s an objective correlative, Mom”;
-- “Who are you? Who do you want me to be?”;
--“Ryan, do you prefer me or the TV me?”;
--“You’ve become self-righteous!" "I was always self-righteous, you used to find it charming”;
As these examples might suggest, The OC worked from the one-liner up, less concerned with the overall architecture of plot or the arc of a given season than with the pop (or as both slang and Roland Barthes might put it, the snap) of the individual moment.
Writing of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin noted the dissipation of the aura that reproduction created, and the subsequent dismissal of notions of expertise: with cinema, he claims, suddenly everyone is an expert. The routinized model of narrative that, say, the Andy Hardy series provided in the 30s and 40s had, by 2003, become so well-known as to almost be parodic. Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, That Girl, Happy Days, Different Strokes, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: all developed the model of family comedy that The OC would follow, while the Hardy series’ more melodramatic moments found their outlets in soap operas (adult and teen alike) such as Peyton Place, Dallas, Dynasty, the ABC afterschool specials, The Sopranos and most famously, Beverly Hills 90210 (to which The OC was often compared, and which recently joined Gossip Girl in a revived version this year).
In threading comedy and soap opera back together, The OC took us back to the form’s unstable and mythologizing roots of the MGM series. But it also felt influenced by a whole host of “dramedies” that the rise of HBO original programming, and of “netlets” like the WB and UPN, created (the spread of these networks working in a Benjaminian way, spreading programming choices out from the centralized big three networks and further creating a distracted televisual landscape). The two most obvious forerunners are the Gilmore Girls and the aforementioned Buffy The Vampire Slayer, both of which center on teens and parental figures, and the family crises (be they ad-hoc or biological families) that arise from the difficult decision-making period of adolescence. In all three cases, too, one sees a trio of displaced East Coasters (Schwartz, Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon) using a fluid combination of comedy and drama—all built around screwball-fast dialogue—to surf across a rich emotional ocean. It was a landscape so well-traveled that even 28-year old television neophyte Schwartz knew the generic frameworks.
With its neologisms and rich color palette, Buffy was probably the biggest influence on The OC—in fact, longtime Buffy staff writer Jane Espenson helped Schwartz develop the show for Fox, and wrote outlines for episodes before departing to become a staff writer for the Gilmore Girls (small world). But Buffy, for all its generic play and intertextuality, maintained a core of sincerity and earnestness throughout its seven seasons: however outrageous the horror and fantasy, there was a fundamental grounding in messages of community, gender and empowerment that Buffy constantly returned to.
The OC was often quite moving, and is also about hope in the face of change, but its mixtures of sincerity and snark are far less stable, and sometimes harder to read. Ir’s difficult to know how to take the umpteenth saving of good-girl-gone-bad Marrissa by her moody boyfriend Ryan, how to read the passive-aggressive banter between geeky Seth and snobby Summer, or how self-aware the show is when yet another argument leads into fistfights by the swimming pool. The show constantly references its own tropes in dialogue that mocks recurring setpieces such as cotillions and school dances; as it goes into years two and three, it looks back on some of its narrative failures with the jaundiced eye of a critic, with characters referencing, then laughing at their more melodramatic choices; and most famously, it introduces The Valley, a show-within-the-show that the characters obsess over, following the suspiciously familiar exploits of the valley’s teen heroes and heroines.
Do such choices and references dissipate the aura, or, as Benjamin notes in an epilogue to the "Work of Art" piece, merely reify its powers, luring you into the show’s spell through the disarming gesture of self-deprecation? And after 60 years of generic recycling, do questions about originality and authenticity still matter, especially given the program’s blatantly plastic surfaces? Does asking such questions put us in the fuddy position of Sandy Cohen, who listens earnestly to his son’s alternative rock to determine if its good for him, occasionally raising one of those famous eyebrows?
Given its recycling of narrative tropes and lack of interest in sustained arcs, The OC’s most immediate model might be pop music as much as television, and the show became as famous for breaking new bands and selling soundtrack downloads as for any of its individual episodes. As one of the show’s bands, Youth Group, put it in their song from the show, “Forever Young,” “Some are the melody, some are the beat.” If narrative is the melody--that familiar tune we can all hum—then the show’s dialogue is, perhaps the beat—the sudden riff or shift in time that can send the song spinning. It’s notable that most of The OC’s emotional catharses utilize the montage form of the music video to show the characters arguing or coming to some kind of reconciliation.
What becomes important, then, is less the notes than their timbre, less a matter of "meaning" than effects: words might be silly, but images sing.
Much of this is true as well of Gossip Girl. It's not necessary to have seen The O.C. to enjoy Gossip Girl, but it doesn't hurt, since part of the fun I derived from the show came from how skillfully Schwartz and his co-producer Stephanie Savage remixed certain tropes from the previous programming in this new setting. It's an adaptation, not an original project, but they come to it like DJ's or jazz musicians, using the books as a text through which they can explore their own, recurring obsessions. Midway through the Season One box set-- just released on DVD-- I found myself mapping out the character correlations in my head. Doomed rich girl Serena (Blake Lively)=The OC's drunken trust fund baby Marissa; her wrong-side-of-the-tracks, level-headed boyfriend Dan (Penn Badgley) is the doppelganger for The OC's Ryan; cool-but-befuddled father Rufus (Matthew Settle) is obviously Sandy Cohen returned to his Brooklyn roots; Robert John Burke's Bart Bass stands in for The OC's Caleb; and Leighton Meester, who plays "queen bee" Blair Waldorf, is a dead ringer for The OC's Rachel Bilson (and she's very good, although no one has Bilson's dizzy, gobstopper-in-the-mouth delivery).
But what do we do with Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford), the restless scion of a troubled legal family? I guess there's some correlation to the The OC's first season bully, Luke, except that Nate is spoiled, but not a bully.
He has a bit of Marissa's poor little rich kid aura (and in fact, Gossip Girl visually connects the two characters by virtually repeating a shot from The OC's second season, as both characters use i-pod headphones to avoid listening to their parents), but he's more responsible and level-headed. And where's the Seth? The DNA of The OC's most important character seems scattered across several Gossip Girl denizens-- Serena's gay brother Eric (Connor Paolo), romantic lead Dan (who has a very Seth-like habit of nervous jibber-jabber), even the odious bad boy Chuck (Ed Westwick)--without ever really coalescing into someone whole.
There's no one quite like Chuck in The OC: first season crazy boy Oliver comes the closest, except Chuck is a regular, and for all of his awful manipulations, has both a greater degree of self-awareness and far more control of his surroundings than the drug-addled Oliver did.
He's also, well, kind of evil-- and more than a bit charming. Ed Westwick is clearly using John Malkovich's performance in Dangerous Liasons as a model (and also, as the producers note in a DVD extra, the various James Spader roles in films like Less Than Zero and Pretty In Pink), but I also sensed a fascination with Classic Hollywood character actors like George Sanders and Peter Lorre. Westwick is neither conventionally handsome nor conventionally ugly, but somewhere in-between, depending on how he's framed, and how the light catches his face-- and yes, that's all meant metaphorically as well as visually. He walks with a slight hunch, and when he stares at a character, his chin often rests on a hand that resembles a claw in repose. His beady eyes, though, might be the key-- they're full of menace and play, and it's clear the actor is having a fabulous time. So are we-- Chuck is a bastard, but Westwick is a delight.
That doubled perspective, of delight and revulsion (or what, more intellectually, we might call investment v. critical distance), is a structural device for the program. Bell's narration is a masterstroke, not only because of the intertextual resonance she brings from former roles (who better to report on the world of the rich and trashy than Veronica Mars?), but because "Gossip Girl's" ripped-from-the-internet musings can both complement and contradict what we're seeing. It becomes the show's equivalent of The OC's show-within-a-show, The Valley-- it will snark on what's happening so Television Without Pity can't. But instead of a once-in-awhile jokey reference, its appearance in every episode makes it an interesting barometer of truth and knowledge-- how do we know what we're seeing? How should we take what we're seeing? Is the truth in what we see, what "Gossip Girl" writes and speaks, or somewhere else entirely? Along with the omnipresent pop music (Schwartz/Savage shows always have a killer soundtrack), the dipped-in-acid musings of Bell suggest that what we hear is as important as what we see. Which is, after all, both the lesson and danger of gossip.
Of course, what we see is important, too-- the show's visual equivalent to all this sonic layering is a dense mise-en-scene and layering of foreground and background that might make Max Ophuls or Andre Bazin weep. Those smushed vertical surfaces I mentioned earlier are remarkably busy, with common melodrama tropes like mirrors and other reflective surfaces only adding to the funhouse feel. There are so many alluring people and objects in the foreground that we lose track of what's happening in the background, until something catches our eye back there, and we get immersed in the busy crowds and gorgeous scenery-- and forget to notice something in the foreground again. Parties are a remixed element from The OC, too, but here they feel less like free-for-alls and more like spaces of the hunt-- miss something and you're dead.
That makes escaping to Brooklyn an alluring concept, and the show does a good job of contrasting the low-rent life of Dan Humphrey and his family with that of Dan's prep school peers. The family's airy loft is a horizontally-oriented set rather than a vertically-oriented one, a nice visual reflection of how the family's ethos contrast with those of the Upper East Side social climbers. It's notable, though, that as the Humphreys get more and more sucked into that world's web (oh, did I forget to mention that Dan's dad Rufus has a crush on Serena's mom, Lily?), the loft space is filmed more and more in close-ups and very tight two-shots: everything is becoming much more claustrophobic and constricting, spatially and emotionally.
All of that means the real audience doppleganger is not passive-aggressive do-gooder Dan, but his younger sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen), a good girl who longs to be a snob. She's smart, funny, and seemingly innocent, but she finds herself drawn to the world of Blair and the other Mean Girls even as she knows it's not good for her. Jenny is a cautionary tale within Gossip GIrl's first season arc, but maybe it's possible to read her more positively, as a potential critical model. She becomes intoxicated by the glamour and allure of the upper East Side, and is genuinely curious about its rituals. She gets in a little over her head, but never quite loses her sarcastic smarts. And she finds a way, in the end, to take that rush of color and light and money and conflicted desire, and to use it as a creative engine for her future work. She is, in other words, a budding media critic, and the best representation of the complex relationship between trash and art, irony and sincerity, surface and depth, that Gossip Girl offers.