Pop CultureSeptember 20, 2017

Gossip Girl trapped me on the Upper East Side for two terrible months


For about two months in 2014, Elle Hunt watched nothing but Gossip Girl. On the 10th anniversary of the show’s premiere, she reflects on the legacy of the Upper East Side snark-fest – and why sometimes it’s OK to give up on a mediocre TV show.

Warning: contains a big spoiler – the biggest – directly below.

Five years ago, after lunch one day in December, I was returning to my desk when I passed a colleague I was on nodding terms with, stomping his way to the elevator.

“Did you hear?” he spat, equal parts disgusted and incredulous. “It’s DAN.”

“What?” I said. It was maybe the most he’d ever said to me.

“Gossip Girl,” he said as the elevator doors closed over his face. “Gossip Girl is DAN.”

That was about the first I’d heard of the last great teen drama of the 21st century – the day its final episode was broadcast. It would be another two years until I would feel personally victimised by that reveal myself.

I was slow to get around to Gossip Girl, as I am to much television. I have missed so many “must-watch” shows that I triage them, assigning priority to those that loom so large in popular culture that I can no longer afford to avoid them. Only at the point when not having seen something is an active impediment to my work and comprehension of jokes on Twitter do I make a start – often begrudgingly, like it’s yardwork.

By this assessment, Gossip Girl proved more vital than The Sopranos, which I still haven’t seen because people don’t quote it all that often. Gossip Girl, however, came onto my radar for having captured a particular moment in internet culture when bloggers were kingmakers and the bar for what constituted both celebrity and the public interest were plummeting. It was the early 2000s, Paris Hilton’s heyday and the advent of the Blackberry; it didn’t seem so sinister that the petty dramas of a group of elite private schoolgirls would be blogged about back then.

This was the world into which Gossip Girl was born as a young adult novel in 2002, and the one it frequently mirrored and even influenced as a television series from 2006. “Whether it’s the show itself, or the stratified life it represents, Gawker trades in that [Gossip Girl] world and especially its language,” wrote one media commentator in 2010, noting both texts’ frequent references to “peasants”.

That legacy was what brought me to Gossip Girl for the first time in 2014, two years after my colleague’s disgruntled spoiler and seven after the pilot first aired. It was an unsettled time in my life – my two closest friends had left the country just as I’d started a long-distance relationship, my flatmates seemed to never be home, and I was on the lookout for a new job. Pulled in different directions but unable to act on any, I sought to distract myself with someone else’s drama. I found no end of it on the Upper East Side.

Gossip Girl was the sophomore project of the creators of The OC, which concluded after four seasons in 2007. (I got around to that earlier this year.) By adapting Cecily von Ziegesar’s popular series of books, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage hoped to transpose their success from the West Coast to the East.

The stereotypes ring true for each show: The OC was bathed in a perpetual golden glow, its innate Californication only amplified by Seth Cohen’s straining to escape it. The drama was mostly tragic; the sex, pretty PG. Marissa was an alcoholic and a terrible judge of character. Kirsten was just an alcoholic. Ryan had a heart of gold but was inclined to violence. Summer had a heart of gold but was inclined to violence. Sandy came close to cheating with his old girlfriend, but didn’t, and that somehow managed to carry entire episodes.

Gossip Girl, by contrast, was sleeker, nastier, more luxurious, grown-up – “Mind-Blowingly Inappropriate”, to quote the Parents Television Council’s complaint that was put on posters to promote season two. The calibre of guest stars it was able to command was testament to just how much buzz about it there was. On the day of its 100th episode, then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the set and declared 26 January “Gossip Girl Day”.

No one asked for an OC Day.

Gossip Girl was cool. It had sex and drugs and what at the time passed for rock’n’roll. Blair Waldorf performed a striptease in the first episode. Serena van der Woodsen “killed someone”. Hilary Duff rounded out a threesome; Kim Gordon officiated a wedding. Liz Hurley just had nothing else going on for the entire second half of 2011.

Beyond the partner-swapping of the core cast, the drama was mostly propelled by guest stars hellbent on their destruction, usually by elaborate means and for unclear reasons. At least on The OC, writers attributed bit players’ antagonism to romantic rejection, immaturity or mental illness. Gossip Girl’s Georgina – and Ivy, and Juliet, and Poppy – just wanted to watch the world burn.

They were pouring kerosene on a towering inferno. The closer characters were, the more appallingly they behaved to each other – especially Serena and Blair, the original frenemies. The world was mean and small and made more of both by the omnipresent anonymous gossip blogger keeping tabs on their every betrayal. Her “e-blasts”, written in laboured extended metaphors, had no less seismic an impact for being largely incomprehensible.

“Some might call this a ‘fustercluck’,” was one. “But on the Upper East Side, we call it Sunday afternoon.”

In hindsight, the steep cliff the show would fall off was heavily signposted. I should not have been so close to the edge.

Gossip Girl ran for six seasons from 2007 to 2012. There are 121 episodes, each with a running time of between 39 and 44 minutes. I watched the entire series over a period of about eight weeks in 2014. I don’t remember spending time with friends, eating, or even going to work at all in that time. I remember it being winter, and being alone a lot, and sometimes watching as many as six episodes back to back. I was so determined to knock off the whole series that I would watch episodes at double speed from the bath, my laptop balanced on the toilet seat.

In the retelling, it sounds a bit like depression. At the time, it felt like an arduous feat outstanding on my to-do list.

Entire seasons of Gossip Girl range from very bad to unwatchable, depending on how much they are concerned with Chuck “I’m Chuck Bass” Bass and his parents. By the end of season six, any joy I had once gleaned from the campy melodrama had boiled down to grim resolve to knock the bastard off.

I projected my increasing incredulity onto Eric van der Woodsen and Dorota, who, from season four on, were the only characters I felt I could still count on to react like normal humans.

“Can you believe this, Dorota?” I would gasp from the bath.

I do not regret my investment of three days, 16 hours and 44 minutes, because the experience taught me the case against being a completist. Just because a show is important or popular does not mean that it is good the whole way through, and you don’t need to watch every episode to be able to get the jokes on Twitter even if you are years late.

Above all, you should never be more invested in a show than someone who starred in it. Last month a Vanity Fair journalist writing a 10-year retrospective of the show asked Ed Westwick, who played Chuck Bass, about his favourite plotline. He replied by email: “I still am not sure who GG was lol.”

Keep going!