College is the curse of the modern teen drama. While the show that set the template for the genre, Beverly Hills 90210, managed to survive for several seasons after its characters earned their undergraduate degrees, few others make it past their SATs. And even if they do, shows like The O.C. and Degrassi: The Next Generation end up losing the signature brand of insanity that initially hooks viewers like myself. Just like in the real world, the petty, social plot points that drive these shows during the high school years just don't come across as well in collegiate settings because nobody gives a shit about that stuff in college.
But I think Gossip Girl has a fighting chance to make it through the transition from high school to college because school has always been an afterthought on the show. While its principal characters have always acted like the idiotic children they are, Constance Billard School For Girls and St. Jude's School For Boys existed merely as common ground for those characters; just as interchangeable as the various penthouses, hotel suites, clubs, and trendy restaurants at which they would inevitably run into one another. And the writers have made the wise move to keep two characters in high school, while everyone other than Blake Lively's Serena Van Der Woodsen attends college in New York City—with the exception of Chuck "I'm bored with you and ruined my pants" Bass, who will slowly ease his way into his father's throne atop the Big Apple's billionaire boys club. With regard to that continuing storyline, Gossip Girl will continue to operate at the optimal level of ridiculousness.
(To catch everyone up with what happened since the show was last covered in this space, Brooklyn outsider Dan Humphrey and Upper East Side queen Serena got back together and broke up again twice; Chuck and the spoiled object of his affection Blair Waldorf played "cat and mouse" all school year before finally admitting they loved each other; Dan's clothing-designer-savant sister Jenny dropped out of school in order to begin her design career, only to return to Constance; Nate Archibald lost everything, only to be welcomed back by his mother's Kennedy-esque family, the head of which hopes to mold the boy into a prime politician. Everyone almost went to Yale, but then didn't. Dan's activist-ish friend Vanessa remained mostly annoying. In the adult world, Blair's mom married Wallace Shawn; Chuck's dad died, leaving his wife Lily Van Der Woodsen free to pursue her lost love, former rocker Rufus Humphrey. The impending Van Der Woodsen-Humphrey nuptials put the final nail in the Dan-Serena coffin, as did the news that Lily and Rufus had a child together that Lily gave up for adoption. Gossip Girl blogged and cattily commented on almost all of it.)
Of course, after all that talk of college, post-secondary education received little mention during Gossip Girl's third season première, which, following a template set by last season's première, caught the viewer up with all the excessive fun the characters had over their summer break, then deposited said characters at a fancy party. With Lily Van Der Woodsen tending to her ailing mother, perpetually clueless dad Rufus was left to initiate the merging of the Humphrey and Van Der Woodsen clans at the Van Der Woodsen's Hamptons summer home. Yes, the Hamptons, where all great families come together. Serena, however, has been living it up in Europe, returning to her old hard-partying ways in a fashion that Jenny and Serena's brother Eric try to hide, but fail. Rufus may be clueless, but even the clueless know someone's been up to no good when they arrive in a limo tailed by paparazzi. A few tabloid shots come to Dan's attention, Dan brings them to Rufus' attention, and, voíla! The season's first source of conflict that… won't go anywhere. Of course, we the viewer know that Serena was in Europe trying to track down her long-lost father with the help of epic UES tool Carter Baizen.
Chuck and Blair have started skipping merrily down the path to becoming the couple of Bret Easton Ellis' nightmares; they've apparently spent the whole summer setting up scenarios where Chuck is seduced by a potential mistress, only to have Blair interrupt, embarrass the seductress, and then take advantage of a revved-up Chuck. It's a continuation of the manipulative games the two played with one another before they were together, only they're not fun for the viewer. The episode continued to put the couple in similar situations, reducing the show's two best characters to nothing more than a horny Nick and Nora. They eventually decide to drop the third wheel aspect, and at episode's end are engaged in some patron-waiter role-play. It's funny, but while I'm no prude (and neither is Blair, anymore), I feel the need to borrow a phrase from previous GG correspondent Scott Tobias: Ew.
The hoity-toity shindig that brings everyone together in the episode's third act is the annual polo match hosted by Nate's family at their Connecticut estate. Nate, who blew off a summer internship secured by his grandfather to instead go backpacking through Europe, continues his flirtation with rebellion by bringing Bree Buckley—the granddaughter of the family's political rival—as his date. As is his wont since taking the mantle of the show's super-rich puppetmaster from Bart Bass, Nate's grandfather William Vanderbilt (played by Tony-winner James Naughton) acts totally cool with Nate's choice of dates, then calls his other grandson—the hilariously nicknamed "Trip" Vanderbilt—to inform him that he's found a new way to bring down the Buckleys. Scheming!
Meanwhile, Vanessa confronts Dan about his embrace of the Van Der Woodsen's privileged lifestyle, as her date Scott cozies up with Rufus, who (surprise, surprise) is entirely unaware that Scott is his and Lily's child. He doesn't even see through the kid's excuse that he's a big fan of Rufus' old band, Lincoln Hawk. Come on, Humphrey: If there's one thing that's been well established in the Gossip Girl universe, it's that nobody truly likes Lincoln Hawk. Serena tops all her previous paparazzi-baiting by stealing one of the polo horses, only to be pursued by Carter, who calls her out on the reason behind the paparazzi-baiting: it's a cry for fatherly attention. This is followed by some off-screen love-making in the most well-landscaped forest ever shown on television. What Serena's been missing is that Rufus is trying to be her father, going so far as to pay off all but one of New York City's paparazzi agencies in order to keep Serena out of the tabloids; turns out that final agency is in cahoots with Serena, and will continue publishing photos of her because Serena knows that having an absentee father is better than a father who used to front a band called Lincoln Hawk. Someone should tell this to Scott.
What does this portend for the upcoming season? Hopefully something a little crazier than what transpired tonight. The table is set for some delicious, monied wackiness—Serena's search for daddy via TMZ, the Buckley-Vanderbilt rivalry, Scott's attempts to insinuate himself into the the family that gave him up—but this episode spent too much time setting that table. Hopefully those plot lines get a chance to play out, with a little bit of Chuck-and-Blair-derived mischief (minus the attempts to spice up their love life in the manner a bored married couple) on the side. But there's always the chance that college life might get in the way.
• Increasing the feel that the episode was less a première and more of a prelude: The preview of next week's episode, showing the upcoming clash of the bitchy titans when Blair discovers her NYU roommate is none other than arch rival Georgina Sparks (Michelle Trachtenberg).
• A good bellwether for the quality of a Gossip Girl episode: the quality of Chuck Bass' neckwear. Nothing too inspiring this go-round, much like the episode
• Like awesome neckwear, Gossip Girl herself was mostly a non-entity in this episode. Could these things be connected? (Yes, in that Chuck Bass is definitely Gossip Girl.)
• The Gossip Girl marketing machine was in full swing during the commercial breaks, with ads hawking the season two DVD set, Anna Sui's GG-inspired clothing line for Target, and the Penn Badgley-starring remake of The Stepfather.
• Play along with T.V. Club at home: Every time Carter Baizen's smirking mug shows up on the screen, shake your fist at yell "Carter Baizen!" at the screen. Guaranteed to get one weary chuckle from your fiancée.