The guilty pleasure of Gossip Girl
Boyfriends, blogs and blazing rows – Gossip Girl is vacuous rubbish aimed at 13-year-olds. And its return is set to be a triumph, says Esther Walker
Wednesday 21 January 2009
I tend to keep quiet about how much I like Gossip Girl. I ought to like edgy shows such as The Wire but I don't, really. I tell everyone that I do, because otherwise the cool police will come and get me. But actually I watch Gossip Girl and talk about it in secret with Simon, my one friend who also admits to watching it.
This is moderately shaming because Gossip Girl is terrible. It is vacuous rubbish with no real redeeming features, aimed just below the intellect of your average 13-year-old. Yet I can't get enough of it.
Produced by Josh "The OC" Schwartz, the show follows an unlikeable and unbelievable bunch of rich and slightly less rich teenagers and their staggeringly moronic parents around Manhattan.
The central premise is so simple it's genius, and it's one that the pre-teen and teen audience – and I – can, like, totally relate to. There are these two girls, Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively), and they used to be best friends but now they hate each other. And that's it. Each episode gleefully details what terrible new things they have dreamed up to do to each other. The plot is ludicrous, the dialogue at times laugh-out-loud bad. For example: "My father left my mother for a 31-year-old model... a 31- year-old male model!" Or: "So what if your BFF can make you go WTF?"
The eponymous and anonymous Gossip Girl is a blogger, posting about "the scandalous lives" of the residents of the Upper East Side. Referring to the characters by their first initial, she provides a voice-over for the action, coming out with such gems as "Who doesn't love a five-finger discount? Especially if one of them is the middle one!"
Gossip Girl is, in short, the Showgirls of teen TV. Watching an episode is like eating an entire bag of penny sweets all in one go. But the programme, based on the best-selling books by Cecily von Ziegesar, is actually far more enjoyable and compelling than The OC, the show that made Schwartz's name and with which Gossip Girl is constantly compared. Even when it is rubbish and frankly embarrassing, at least Gossip Girl has none of The OC's nauseating smugness. The clothes are better on the Upper East Side, too; the subjects are less challenging; the clichés are more cringeworthy; and the whole thing is so sincerely insincere, rather than insincerely sincere (like The OC), that it is entirely more likeable.
I bet Josh Schwartz knows this. There was doubtless plenty of money in making The OC, but there is even more money in the pre-teen and teen audience who own every single one of Von Ziegesar's books; they are a demographic that in any given country have a combined disposable income that outstrips the US Army's budget. And little training-bra brats absolutely love Gossip Girl. They gobble it up and spit it out in the playground with relish. Which one are you? Tall, blonde, thin, perfect (if a bit scruffy) Serena van der Woodsen? Or short, dark, scheming, power-crazed über-bitch (but totally popular) Blair Waldorf? Anyone who has met a 13-year-old girl (or, actually, a girl any age) can probably attest to the fact that what they really hate is each other: Serena and Blair's relentless power struggle is only the magnification and slight distortion of what happens, daily, in young girls' lives. Although, Serena and Blair don't get nearly personal enough. If I were Serena I would definitely make far more of the ripe acne Blair hides under all that make-up. And there's a reason the camera rarely strays below Serena's shoulders – she's got thighs the width of the M4!
Just as ever-shifting "friendship groups" are absolutely central to the lives of teenage girls, everything and everyone else in Gossip Girl is an accessory to the main Blair/Serena catfight. Serena and Blair's posh male peers are curiously sexless, mere eunuchs serving at the ultra-feminine court of bitchery. They say things like "It's expected of me – after all, I am an Archibald", and "Of course I'm going to an Ivy League school – I'm a Bass!" and "Hey, it's OK, he can afford it – he's a Von der Dietzenmesserschimdt!"
Nathan "Nate" Archibald, who looks exactly like boy robots will in the future, is the cause of the original row between Blair and Serena. He spends most of the first series as Blair's boyfriend, but he and Serena have a bit of a "thing". There is precisely zero chemistry between him and Blair, who, episode after episode, desperately throws her virginity at him, which he politely declines; nor is there any chemistry between him and Serena.
He does spend an awful lot of time sleeping on the sofa of the deliciously unfeasible rotter Chuck Bass, who lives in the hotel his dad owns, and is Bad because he drinks a lot and tries to seduce 14-year-old girls. If he could grow a moustache, he would twirl it. I just hope Nate turns out to be gay and Chuck develops a nasty smack habit.
Counter-intuitively, Dan Humphrey, the obligatory wrong-side-of-the-tracks boy, whose sole purpose is to be a bit dangerous and loosen a bit of rich-girl knicker elastic, is a total drip. He's a virgin, for God's sake, and when his girlfriend Serena wants to do it he has to read the Kama Sutra for tips and be advised by his dad to change his sheets, which are decorated with a football motif.
Which brings us to a key Gossip Girl trait: the lack of any solid adult figures. If Gossip Girl were a documentary, all the parents would immediately be investigated by social services. Serena's mother, Lily, is an entirely one-dimensional multiple divorcée who only cares about money and social status; Blair's mom, Eleanor, is downright horrible, and picks Serena over her own daughter to star in a photo campaign for her clothing line; Dan's aforementioned dorky dad owns a gallery in Brooklyn, wears a gap-year-tragedy leather-thong necklace and used to be in a band.
Nate's mum is a Valium zombie; his father (seen thrashing around in Samantha Jones' bedroom in Sex and the City) at least has an entertaining cocaine habit, exposed when he buys a fist-sized bagful and hides it in the living room bookcase. When Nate confronts him, his dad throws a no-doubt cocaine-fuelled punch and is arrested by a conveniently passing policeman. Feckless parents, catty teenagers who are so thin their eyes bulge out of their tiny heads, petty arguments, and actors with names that sound like they were cobbled together from a Scrabble set with half the letters missing. Gossip Girl is not cool, it's not clever and it's not realistic. What's not to like?
Gossip guy: Ed Westwick, the Upper East Side's hottest heartthrob
A strange thing happens ahead of my meeting with Ed Westwick aka 'Gossip Girl''s smooth-talking, flash-dressing bad boy Chuck Bass: I start to get inundated with texts and phone calls from England, all of them asking the same thing: "Have you interviewed him yet? What's he like? Phone me immediately you've finished and let me know."
The people making these phone calls are otherwise sane, rational human beings of both sexes, yet their interest in 'Gossip Girl''s most devious gossip boy appears to verge on obsession. Not since a long ago interview with a pre-'Shameless' James McAvoy have so many people been so keen to ask me what an interviewee is really like.
The answer is that, like McAvoy, Westwick is likeable, candid and down-to-earth. When we meet on a cold Sunday night in a Manhattan bar, he starts talking the instant we sit down, pausing only to order a beer: "Sorry if my voice sounds a bit odd, we were just doing this crazy shoot for 'Rolling Stone' and they made us pretend to have a pillow fight so the feathers got everywhere and now I keep thinking that I've got some stuck in my throat. I'll probably start choking or something."
Stray feathers apart, it appears that little fazes Westwick who manages to be refreshingly open about life in the spotlight while remaining both unbothered by the idea of fame and by the notion that it might stop him doing whatever he fancies. "It can be crazy," he admits referring to the attention devoted to 'Gossip Girl''s young cast by the New York paparazzi. "But I came to a decision once everything started taking off that I wasn't going to be imprisoned by it [success]. I didn't see the need to restrict myself, if I want to go out and get pissed up then I'm going to go out and get pissed up. As long as it's not damaging me or anyone else then I don't think it's a problem."
It may not be a problem but surely it's somewhat exhausting? Westwick is regularly papped outside of some of New York's hottest bars, his every move seems to be tracked by both the 'New York Post''s Page Six and, more light-heartedly, by New York blogs such as Intelligencer and Gawker, meanwhile his love life is the source of much speculation (he's rumoured to be dating cast member Jessica Szohr aka Vanessa Abrams, who pops in during our interview). "I'm a 21-year-old in New York and New York is like London on crack or, no, New York's like London on speed, it's incredible," says Westwick with a grin. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't love living here."
Dedication to having a good time or otherwise there's also no doubting Westwick's commitment to the role that is making his name. Born in Stevenage, Westwick originally auditioned for the part of preppy golden boy Nate Archibald but, while the show's creators, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, loved him, the network felt that he looked more like a serial killer than a romantic lead. He was given the role of Chuck instead and, despite a wardrobe that teeters on the verge of parody, turned the character from potential sleazebag into the show's romantic heart.
"I think the reason people like Chuck is because more people prefer to see a bad person grope towards redemption than to see a good person go to the bad," Westwick says. "And also he and Blair have a relationship that echoes classic films, plus, of course, they get all the witty lines."
Nor is it just viewers who have fallen for the strangely seductive Chuck Bass. The Chuck/Blair pairing was cited in almost every US magazine's end of year review. "It has been amazing," Westwick admits. "I really miss London in the summer," he says. "But the rest of the year... when I go back it's like a glimpse of what my life might have been if I hadn't got lucky and what it still could be. At the moment I'm here and it's fun and I'm making the most of it. Wouldn't you?" Sarah Hughes
'Gossip Girl' starts on ITV2 tonight at 9pm
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