I swore I was done with teen soap operas, and I totally meant it. Ever since Dawson left the Creek, I had decided that I had enough. If I wanted to relive my adolescence, I had Entourage for that--a bunch of dudes acting like all the jerks I knew and loathed in high school, but with the swearing and occasional nudity I wasn't going to find on shows like One Tree Hill. Besides, if I was too old to hang out down at the Creek, how the hell were these aging hips going to make it all the way up that lonely, bare mountain to look at the jail-bait foliage?
Admittedly, Gossip Girl looked intriguing from the start. The early commercials made it look like someone had pitched Cruel Intentions crossed with the wardrobe of Clueless, but without any of the latter's irony. "Surely," I told myself, "I am above such things," and refused to give in. In my heart, I knew that it would just take watching the pilot, and I would be hooked, so best to just stay away and maintain this intellectual smugness that said I had grown up and moved on. Besides, back when Gossip Girl was just a series of young adult novels by Cecily Von Ziegesar and not yet a television phenom, the literary site Bookslut had given me one of my best press blurbs ever, writing in a review of mine and Joëlle Jones' comic book 12 Reasons Why I Love Her: "Teen girls everywhere, toss the Gossip Girls and find your way to Mr. Rich." How could I become part of the disease when I was supposed to be the cure?!
To keep a long story from getting longer, I caved. I made it through the whole season, through the writer's strike and the triumphant return to the air, through the lure of Buffy's Michelle Trachtenburg guest-starring as the evil nemesis, and into the summer without ever looking in Serena van der Woodsen's direction. Then DVD Talk mentor Geoff Kleinman told me how good Gossip Girl was and that I'd really like it, and I huffed and I puffed and I said fine, I'd try it. True to my word, I sampled it, and he was right, so of course I got hooked and added myself as a fan on Facebook and everything. Curse you, King G, curse you!
I've never been a fan of the concept of the "guilty pleasure," because, well, who are you to judge what brings me pleasure, but Gossip Girl is as close as I imagine you can get to what most people mean when they invoke that concept. It's not Shakespeare, I'm not even sure if it's original classic 90210, but it is an addictive pillow fight that I am more than willing to let hit me in the face again and again. And if that metaphor seems ridiculous to you, again, who are you to judge? One of us here is taking himself way too seriously and clearly doesn't understand. And that one of us is not me.
The aforementioned Ms. van der Woodsen is, ostensibly, the main character of the series. Played with equal parts sparkle and pathos by Blake Lively (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Serena is the one-time wild child who had been sent away to boarding school unexpectedly for a host of misdeeds that only she seems to know the full extent of. Her reappearance at Constance Billard private high school is as shocking as her initial unannounced departure, and cell phones all over campus start lighting up with text alerts of Serena spottings. It seems the rumor chain at Constance is controlled by an anonymous blogger, the titular Gossip Girl (voiced by Kristen Bell), who regularly shakes up the social order by spreading anonymous tips far and wide. In a matter of moments, Serena is right back in the thick of the peer pressure jungle she had run away from.
Much of season 1 of Gossip Girl is devoted to finding out why Serena left. The first reason given--that she slept with Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford), the betrothed of Serena's best friend Blair (Leighton Meester), the undeniable Queen B at Constance--is not the only reason, as we'll eventually discover, nor is the path of the straight and narrow all that easy to balance on. Blair is going to put Serena through hell before letting her back in the fold, and Nate isn't going to fare all that well either, especially since his feelings for Serena are so obviously unresolved. Given that this is what we can suss out in just the first couple of scenes, it should give you an idea of the high melodrama you are in for across all 18 episodes.
Though Gossip Girl deals with a lot of the regular tropes of teen soaps (what did Ryan Murphy teach us about the blonde hair (Serena) vs. brown hair (Blair) dynamic on Popular?), its high society setting gives the show a delicious glaze of unreality. The clothes are exaggerated to such a degree that it makes the Sex and the City gals look positively old fashioned, and the boys all have such impeccable bangs, if there is ever a collapse of civilization, Nate and best pal Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) will likely be hunted for their pelts. The boys also fit predictable patterns. Nate is the thinking man's trust-fund baby who wants to break out of the Archibald family stranglehold and forge his own path. (Daddy's coke habit doesn't really help inspire confidence in junior.) On the flipside, Chuck indulges in every indulgence he can imagine, and his smug exterior is just a cover for the fact that he can't get his daddy (Robert John Burke) to give him that approval he so desires. The kids do things like break into the school pool and throw a party where a drunken accident gets a boy hurt, and then have to cover up for it. They study for the SATs, and a few of them (well, Chuck) even cheat. It's just that instead of hanging out at a dive like the Peach Pit, they can book the most exclusive restaurants in New York and never get carded. Let the martinis pour!
Yet, not everything is entirely as expected. The main relationship between Serena and Blair is full of more nuance than your normal good vs. bad. Lively manages to make Serena work as the should-be perfect girl whose flaws become part of the reason she is so well liked, while Blair ends up being more than just the average villainess. Unlike the Chuck Bass sinister sneer (which, granted, Ed Westwick pulls off with an uncanny aplomb), Blair's position as the popular girl to hate is only propped up by all of her baggage. A father who left her mother for another man and an eating disorder are enough to make you feel sorry for her, and her steadfast devotion to Serena despite S's betrayal, which ultimately leads to B losing her virginity to the wrong guy, means we can actually like her. Like Blake Lively, Leighton Meester--who previously appeared as a pop singer on two episodes of Entourage, and who is allegedly returning in the new season, hopefully to be treated better than most female characters on that sausage fest--can handle both sides quite well. Her sad scenes have the right combination of true emotion and petulant pouting, and when she wants to be a bitch, it's oh so fun to watch. As always on shows like this, the bad kids are really the reason to tune in, and I'm all ready to serve in Queen B's court.
In addition to the rich kids, Gossip Girl also has the requisite poor kids trying to get a leg up in the world. The Humphrey clan lives in Manhattan, which most are quick to point out is not the Upper East Side, but has-been-rock-star dad Rufus (Matthew Settle) puts all the money he earns at his modest gallery into paying for his son Dan (Penn Badgley) and daughter Jenny (Taylor Momsen) to go to Constance and its brother school, St. Jude (where Chuck and Nate go). Jenny wants to sit at the cool kids' table, and so she spends a lot of time and energy trying to break in. She is dubbed Little J by Gossip Girl and becomes an agent of change in a lot of the social shenanigans that see many of the characters rise and fall on the register during the season. Dan, on the other hand, finds such shallow endeavors beneath him (he wants to be a writer, the poor sap!), though he has harbored a crush on Serena for many years. Her newfound depth finally offers him an opportunity to have a shot at his dream girl, though the pressures of her world will prove to be temptations for the strident and unbending teen. Encounters with Serena's long-lost rival Georgina Sparks (Trachtenberg), the return of Dan's old childhood sweetheart Vanessa (Jessica Szohr), and the revelation that daddy Rufus once knocked boots with Serena's mom (Kelly Rutherford) back when Lillian van der Woodsen was feeling her wild debutante oats will all test Dan's moral fiber. I have to say, for a guy who so annoyingly pontificates at length about his personal beliefs, I also found Dan's mettle to be annoyingly thin. Then again, contradictions do make for a more interesting character.
Beyond the characters and the sometimes stock storylines, there is a frankness to Gossip Girl that's absence has long kept most teen programming from being entirely believable to the intended audience. The parties are blowouts that include narcotics and booze, and there are very few of the older teens who have not shared the sack with someone else by the season finale. The series manages to pull these things off without resorting to lame euphemisms (remember when the 90210 clique got high on euphoria at an underground dance party?) and without getting overly preachy with the consequences (well, except when Dan is explaining them). Teen pregnancy, homosexuality, even a suicide attempt are given an honest airing that allegedly freaks some parents out but probably appeals to their kids more than they realize for not talking down or sugarcoating the topics.
Developed by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, two of the minds behind the execrable The O.C., Gossip Girl thankfully displays none of the intentional stupidity or unintentional bad acting of their previous show. The move from West to East Coast (the series is shot entirely on location in NYC) has done them good, the chilly winters repairing some of that sun-drenched brain damage they suffered down California way. Again, this is not high art, it does not aspire to be Imitation of Life for the tweens of the 21st century, but it does manage to be crazily entertaining without mistaking trash television for being synonymous with low standards. Sure, the occasional clunker does hit the screen--most of the stuff with the revival of Rufus' band is mega cheesy (the sex and drugs are always better than the rock 'n' roll on TV), and the rich vs. poor dynamic could stand a softer sell--but I gobbled up every brightly colored, acid-tongued minute of it. My only complaint is that they started everything off in the junior year of high school, meaning we only have one more season before S, B, Nate, Chuck, and Dan head off to college. We all know that college is like creeping death for high school soaps. So, which pop-culture critiquing writer is likely to be jumping the Gossip Girl ship in 2009? That's one secret I'll never tell.
You know you love me. xoxo, DVD Talk.
Gossip Girl - The Complete First Season puts 18 episodes on 5 DVDs--four each on the first four discs, the last two episodes and bonus features on disc 5.
The series was shot in widescreen and is thus transferred to disc in its original aspect ratio. The image quality looks as fresh as it should for a show produced last year, with appropriate clarity and no compression problems. The colors look great, and the blacks are deep and solid. There is a little bit of grain during some of the night scenes, and some shimmer when the colors burn hot, but these are rare hiccups.
The menus on the Gossip Girl discs have a little fun with the style of the show, and that includes calling the language subsection "Lingo." (Likewise, "Play All" is the rather commanding "Go.") The original English soundtrack is mixed in Dolby Surround 5.1. It's a decent mix, not overly spectacular, but with solid levels and strong interplay from the various audio elements: dialogue, narration, sound effects, and music. Right from the get-go and the opening scenes in Grand Central Station, you'll hear the mix move about within the open expanse of the locale, and it continues to be zippy as phones chime to life to announce the first spotting of Serena.
A second audio track dubs the show into Portuguese, and it is mixed in 2.0. Warner Bros. also provides a gaggle of subtitle options, including English Closed Captioning, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Thai.
The packaging for Gossip Girl - The Complete First Season is wondrously economical. All five discs are stored in one clear plastic case that is only slightly thicker than your average single-disc case. This is a big plus for TV-on-DVD fanatics running out of space! Two hinged trays hold two DVDs each, staggering them so none of the discs are ever entirely face to face, and the fifth fits on a spindle on the inside of the back cover.
The cover is printed on both sides so that there is artwork wherever you look, and the case slides into a thick paper slipcover with shiny embossed printing. There is also a 12-page booklet featuring photos; a cast list; a disc-by-disc episode guide, including indications of which episodes have deleted scenes; and information on how to download the audio book of the first Gossip Girl YA novel. A separate insert repeats the audio book instructions while also advertising the book series overall.
The only extras on the first four discs are deleted scenes, and these are played separately from the episodes but are included in the menu next to the show they belong to. (You can pick each show one at a time, or you can play them all at once.) Scenes are available for episodes 1, 2, 6, 7, 10, and 12 on the first three discs, making it so there are two on each. All four episodes on DVD 4--shows 13 through 16--have extra scenes, but only on episode 18, the finale, on DVD 5. Deleted scenes range from just a couple of seconds (a cat looking at a vibrating cell phone on episode 1, Dan ignoring a couple of girls at the masquerade in episode 6) to more substantial plot points (the developing secrets between Jenny and Nate in episode 12, Rufus being caught by Dan on a date in 14, Jenny dressing Vanessa for the wedding in the finale). The number of scenes also varies. Episode 1 has the record at 6, while the rest all have either 1 or 2.
DVD 5 has a handful of other featurettes celebrating the first season of Gossip Girl. They are as follows:
* A promo for season 2 and a trailer for the movie The Clique both play as the disc loads.
* "The Beginning, XOXO: Concept to Execution," a 23-minute documentary on the development of the series, including interviews with cast, crew, and author Cecily Von Ziegesar. It starts with talking about the books, but mainly covers the standard ground of how a show is put together. The casting discussion includes snippets of audition tapes, and there are also small bits of on-set footage.
* "Gossip Girl Couture," 14 minutes on the fashion seen in the show, including a peek backstage in the wardrobe closet.
* "A Gossip Girl Wedding," 5-and-a-half minutes about setting up for the big scene in the finale, including the location and the wedding gown.
* "LOL: Gag Reel." 12 minutes of flubs, foibles, and the finery of Chuck Bass.
The bulk of the extras are loaded in the main menu on DVD 5, but there is also a section called "Tunes" with two music videos by the band the Pierces for the songs "Boring" and "Secret," the latter of which actually features footage from the series, including the band performing the song at the debutante ball in episode 10.
When inserted into your computer DVD drive, disc 5 also takes you to a link to download a free audio version of the first Gossip Girl novel as read by Christina Ricci.
Highly Recommended. Gossip Girl - The Complete First Season is a hoot and a half. Flashy and trashy, it's fun, fun, fun. The humor and the melodrama both edge on camp, which keeps this story of scheming rich kids at a New York private school from ever getting dull. Romance and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, social struggles and social consciousness--it's all covered in Gossip Girl. Like an extended run of Dangerous Liaisons amongst the spoiled of the Upper East Side, you never know who will rule the school from one week to the next. This DVD set is a high quality package for a new show, featuring all 18 episodes and a good handful of extras. Get it now and get caught up before season 2 gets underway!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.