By the time a television show reaches its fourth season, the characteristics of its main ensemble ought to be deeply entrenched and immediately recognizable to regular viewers. But on the occasion of Gossip Girl’s fourth season première, the ongoing teen soap—and its characters—are allowed some reinvention. The CW’s flagship franchise is in a precarious position: it’s a show that’s both out of time and losing its sizzle. Despite continuing global economic woes (at some point during “Belles du Jour,” the news broke the U.S. dollar had dropped to a new low in the Japanese market), the show’s stars are still wrapped in haute couture and placed in booths at trendy, expensive restaurants. The rise of microblogging and its role in celebrity culture makes it entirely doubtful that anyone in the Gossip Girl world would still religiously follow the titular blog. (Though Blair was the only one seen checking Gossip Girl updates tonight, and the tip she sent could have been sent out to everyone who follows @TheRealBlairWaldorf as well.) Then there’s the matter of the show’s stars: Penn Badgley can’t open a movie. Leighton Meester’s music career is a non-starter, and Taylor Momsen’s band The Pretty Reckless is limp facsimile of Gossip Girl soundtrack staple The Dead Weather. Chace Crawford got booted from the Footloose remake, and was then busted for marijuana possession in a suburb or Dallas. Blake Lively might have a brighter future as a fashion icon/cohort of human nightmares like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld.
So it’s perfectly understandable that the creative brass behind Gossip Girl might want to shake things up a bit—by, say, setting a good deal of this week’s action off the island of Manhattan. “Belles du Jour” quickly fills in the details of Blair and Serena’s summer in Paris: Serena fucked everything in the city with facial hair and/or a Vespa, while Blair spent her days staring longingly at Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, hoping that a literal European prince would see beyond her too-obvious taste in French impressionists and give her the Grace Kelly treatment. The Paris scenes were a big selling point in promos for the première, and while the action there wasn’t much of a departure for Gossip Girl—but more on that in a second—the locales definitely livened up a visual palette that grew stale over the course of the third season. Meanwhile, both of the guys Serena left behind adjusted to new roles in New York: Nate tried to be the new Chuck with the contacts the old Chuck left in his little black book, while Dan hid in Brooklyn with Georgina and the baby they supposedly conceived together.
Were this a second- or third-season première, the sequence of Georgina’s Russian phone conversation would be an indication that the kid—a bundle of be-hatted joy named Milo, who has the power to calm even an irate Lily—is but an early step in a long con perpetrated by Georgina. But Michelle Trachtenberg’s conniving sociopath appears to have grown a conscience over the summer, and may have pulled the Humphreys into Milo’s orbit just to give him a loving home. Instead of Georgina, it’s Nate’s new squeeze Juliet (CW regular Katie Cassidy) with the most intriguing hand to reveal in coming episodes. Introduced as the cultured, compassionate antidote to the bimbos performing a commercial for Rock Band 3 (“It has a keyboard”) in Nate’s hotel suite, the character leaves “Belles du Jour” by flashing a cork-board diagram of the main cast’s social circle that would leave The Wire’s Lester Freamon thoughtfully nodding his head. There’s a fleeting implication that Juliet could be Gossip Girl, but seeing as Chuck survived that shooting in Prague and is living on the Continent under the assumed identity of “Henry,” we know that’s not true.
Chuck’s survival and new life are set up to be the episode’s big shocker, but I was taken by a different revelation: After Blair decided for the umpteenth time that she was tired of living in Serena’s shadow, it dawned on me that the Serena-Blair relationship is the great, central romance of Gossip Girl. The “will they break it off?” tension between the two characters has informed plenty of plots and multi-episode arcs in the series’ past, but “Belles du Jour” truly let that relationship breathe as it built momentum toward the next episode. It also paid off in one of the show’s best punch lines in a long time, as Blair’s bitchy, entitled nature boiled to the surface and plunged Serena into a fountain. Gossip Girl gets by just fine on scandal, secrets, and convoluted plots, but the times where the show most fully escapes guilty-pleasure territory are when it explores compelling, complex relationships. With the fourth season now underway, the Serena-Blair dynamic has probably been pushed and pulled too far to be the sole focus of the next few episodes, but the kink that Milo puts in Dan’s relationship with Rufus and Lily might produce something worthwhile, while whatever role each of the principals plays in Juliet’s tangled web will at least be fun to watch. And there’s always Chuck, whose demons are temporarily placated—though judging by that harrowing dream sequence, they’re not entirely defeated. And while its couched in new surroundings, isn’t that battle one of the reason we’re still watching this show in the first place?
-This blog entry doesn’t mark the return of regular TV Club Gossip Girl coverage (sorry), but feel free to use the comments to discuss further season four developments. This première convinced me the show still has some life, so I may drop in for another recap mid-season.
-Did anybody else catch those One Tree Hill promos that were basically a condensed version of One Minute Hill? Let’s just pretend we made that happen.
-Proof of how far out of my league I am with many of Gossip Girl’s highbrow references: The note I jotted down about Blair’s preferred Manet reads “the one from that Bow Wow Wow cover.” The potential Knotts Landing reference stemming from Serena’s swim in the fountain, however, is totally in my wheelhouse.