I watch a lot of critically acclaimed TV: The Good Wife, Mad Men, the NBC Thursday night comedy line-up (except for the not-so-critically acclaimed Whitney, which inspires in me the strong urge to cry/vomit/throw heavy objects at my television), Breaking Bad. I also watch a lot of good-not-great TV: The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Castle and Bones. Even some outright terrible television: One Tree Hill, Glee (until recently).
But then there’s a category that is great-to-me TV. These shows may be hit-or-miss, they may not fit a typical definition of outstanding television (or, hey, maybe they do–you don’t find a lot of people who both watch and don’t love Vampire Diaries these days, critics included, and I’ve already expressed to you that I find it to be the best show on television), but they have a hold on me that makes me love them in spite of flaws, in spite of a tenuous grasp on reality, in spite of almost anything really. In this category you can find How I Met Your Mother, Psych, the aforementioned Vampire Diaries…these are the shows I most look forward to each week (in addition to the NBC Thursday night comedy line-up, which is basically a religion in my apartment). They’re the shows I most hate to see go on hiatus (even for just a week), whose return I most anticipate in the fall (sometimes Castle and Bones fall under this category as well). I watch One Tree Hill because I literally cannot stop (you don’t know how many times I’ve tried). I watch How I Met Your Mother because I don’t ever want to stop.
The latest show to fall under this category is Gossip Girl.
I was a fan back in the first season, devouring all the pre-writer’s strike episodes over the course of a long car trip to Florida in January of 2008. I watched off-and-on in season 2 (this goes against my fundamental rule of television, which is to watch everything and to watch it in order), and quit entirely in season 3. Until the series finally paired up a couple of characters I’d been waiting to see together since season 1, Dan Humphrey and Blair Waldorf. And I very quickly found myself sucked back into the series.
It’s a silly show, very soapy and focused around a heavily exaggerated vision of an already exaggerated world. But it’s also absorbing. The characters have sharp style and sharper tongues. They are eternally playing a game of musical partners, often matching themselves up in configurations that are at best repetitive and at worst vaguely incestuous. And none of it bears any resemblance to the so-called “real world.” Vulture even does a weekly reality index, weighing the ridiculous against the believable (though they define “believable” on a bit differently than most). They also call it the Greatest Show of Our Age.
Mindy Kaling wrote in her new book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (which is excellent and which I’m sure I’ll talk about more at some point), that she “regard[s] romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than [her] regular human world.” If you don’t try to place them in our reality, she says, romcoms are highly enjoyable. I look at shows like Gossip Girl the same way.
My life is never going to look like Serena Van Der Woodsen’s or Blair Waldorf’s. Not even like Dan Humphrey’s, though he’s the show’s supposed everyman (the sort of everyman who ends up in a meaningful relationship with his dream girl at 17, dates an Emma-Watson-alike movie star his freshman year of college, hangs out with famous authors and has his first book published at age 21 to great critical acclaim). I may live on the Upper East Side, but the city I see every day looks nothing like the one that Gossip Girl blogs about.
At the same time though, the series keeps me coming back. I’m not drawn in by every plotline–I could care less about most things involving Nate, especially when he’s having an illicit affair with Elizabeth Hurley, and the never-ending saga of Blair’s engagement to and subsequent pregnancy with His Serene(ly boring) Highness*, the Prince of Monaco is wearing thin–but the central conceit of the show–that these characters lives have been broadcast on Gossip Girl since their freshman year of high school, that their every move can be, and usually is, caught on camera-phone–still fascinates me**. The idea that they are fundamentally different because they can’t forget that they’re in the public eye, especially the hyper-judgmental public eye of the average high school student, is the guiding principal of the series and that is a whole can of storytelling worms.
But as I mentioned above, there was a very specific reason that I came back to this series after over a year without it: Dan and Blair.
The show set up a mutual dislike between Dan and Blair in the pilot and that only mounted as the series continued. They’ve teamed up when they needed to, generally to help out Serena, and they shared one very sweet scene in the fourth episode of the series, but the show has always gotten a lot of mileage out of the way Blair can spit out Dan’s name like it actually tastes bad. The truth, though, is that Dan and Blair actually have a lot in common, from their superiority complexes to, apparently, their taste in movies, and when the writers started to set up a genuine friendship between the characters last season, what evolved felt entirely natural. They still sparred, but so do all the best fictional pairs. They still had difficult admitting that they might like each other as people, but this only led to a bit of elegant and entertaining storytelling, in which they carried on their friendship like the illicit affairs that have been a staple of soaps for as long as there have been soaps. And they didn’t touch on the idea that there might be something romantic brewing beneath the surface of their friendship until outsiders started expressing their opinions on the strange duo.
I should say that I am almost certain that the writers of Gossip Girl are going to screw this up. The series has been pushing the supposed true love between Blair and Chuck since the first season (though having just rewatched the first season I have to say I don’t really see it–Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick have undeniable chemistry, but the be-all-and-end-all attitude toward their relationship comes about rather abruptly), and what’s more, Blair is currently engaged to a prince and pregnant with an heir. I also have little faith in the creative juices that are fueling the pairing. They may be able to spin an absorbing tale, but they’ve never shown much skill for sustaining one.
In the Gossip Girl voiceover that has framed the show since the beginning (the narration is done to catty perfection by Kristen Bell, though the dialogue is often nonsensical), there is one phrase we’re sure to hear every week: “you know you love me, X-O-X-O.” It may not be true for the Upper East Siders whose secrets she has so often exposed under the veil of anonymity, but for this Upper East Sider, I have to admit, her words hold water.
* I totally looked this up, and aside from the “(ly boring)” part, it is the correct honorific for the Hereditary Prince of Monaco. Go Wikipedia.
** Admittedly it’s not always used as effectively as it could be, but the show has absolutely gotten it right on occasion. Whether Dan was trying to get his sister to listen to something she wouldn’t hear from him directly or Chuck wanted to speed up the inevitable break-up between Blair and Nate or Blair needed guidance from the all-knowing to help Serena out of a tight spot, Gossip Girl was there.