Never judge a show by its pilot (not always, anyway): A couple of months ago, I weighed in with a negative review of Gossip Girl, the less heralded of O.C. creator Josh Schwartz’s two new series, and the T.V. Club chose instead to follow Schwartz’s other new show, Chuck, which our reviewer Steve Hyden instantly hated and which has subsequently been retired from our weekly line-up. At the time, I ripped on Gossip Girl as little more than Schwartz self-cannibalization, saying that the pilot played “like a discarded O.C. script with the names changed and CW’s demographic-clubbing factored in.” None of the characters stood out, the whole “gossip girl” conceit assigned scandal to garden-variety betrayals, and the show in general just didn’t seem naughty enough to meet my teen soap trash standards.
Oh, but my critical instincts weren’t entirely on the fritz. I sensed that behind this table-setter of a pilot, there was a nasty little guilty pleasure ready to pounce. Here’s my last paragraph:
And yet… why is there a small part of me that wants to tune in next week? It could be that shot near the end, when Blair and Chuck—now united in evil righteousness—give Serena look that’s a little like Carrie post-pig-blood on prom night. The school year hasn’t even started yet, and they’re already plotting the blackest revenge. A little more nastiness could help animate these generically pretty teenagers. After getting through the creaky business of setting up the world of the show, perhaps Schwartz will follow through better in subsequent episodes.
And follow through he (and co-producer Stephanie Savage) did. Every episode since the pilot has been a night-and-day improvement, a weekly celebration/parody of conspicuous consumption and spectacularly cruel adolescent back-biting, and it’s currently the most socially irresponsible hour of network television this side of maybe Deal Or No Deal. In this rarefied Upper East Side milieu, kids drink before noon, throw slumber parties that wouldn’t seem out of place in an Edith Wharton novel, and spend oceans of leisure time plotting revenge in their underwear. And yet despite their extraordinary privilege—the bottomless trust fund accounts, the Ivy League connections, the apparent insignificance of their age w/r/t drinking and clubbing—they’re still teenagers and thus feel wronged by the world. God bless ‘em.
Before I get into the details of tonight’s episode, I feel some introductions are in order. Here are the six principal characters, in order from most awesome to least awesome:
Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester): Without Blair, the deliciously imperious Queen Bee of the UES set, there simply is no show. Every other character, whether they acknowledge it or not, orbits around her blazing sun, yet the beauty of Blair is that she’s got a crippling inferiority complex and acts out on it every chance she gets. Of course, she has good reason to feel eternally spurned, given that her best friend/worst enemy Serena slept with Nate, the mimbo to whom she’s been genetically assigned. In essence, she’s a younger version of Julie Cooper on The O.C., only without the white-trash roots. She comes from money, lots and lots of money, and she expects the world to spoil her rotten.
Jenny Humphrey (Taylor Momsen): Along with her brother Dan, Jenny comes from peasant stock and runs with this crowd because their former rock star bohemian father Rufus (Matthew Settle) wants them to go to a good school. Initially, I wrote off Jenny as a vapid babe-in-the-woods type, but she’s lately emerged as Blair’s mirror image: Just as mischievous and self-possessed, only not evil. The best episode of the season so far, “Dare Devil,” was her coming-out party: Set up to be Blair’s whipping post at her annual slumber party, Jenny instead socked back some martinis and showed a lot of resourcefulness in surviving Blair’s cruel initiation rituals.
Serena Van Der Woodson (Blake Lively): There has been some suggestion that when Serena ran the show, back before skipping town in the aftermath of her rendezvous with Nate, she was much more Blair-like than she is now. Since her return, she’s been on the straight-and-narrow, trying hard to make amends with Blair while dating Dan, a nice guy well below her station. She also has a brother who’s been tucked away in a psychiatric facility, not so much to make feel better as to keep his suicide attempt from embarrassing the family. Serena isn’t intrinsically interesting per se, but there’s pleasure in watching her get kicked around by Blair and then coming back for more like an eager little puppy dog. (She’ll get plenty of truces, but no penance.) And then there’s the hair, of course. Mmmm…hair.
Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley): The Seth Cohen of the show—a nice guy and a solid audience surrogate, if only for knowing that a world exists outside the UES. He doesn’t have the Seth Cohen wit and misfit appeal, but Dan has a puppy-dog earnestness that’s surprisingly winning and serves as a necessary ballast to the show’s more diabolical elements. His romance with Serena will also open him up to myriad untold abuses, poor sucker.
Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick): Why isn’t Chuck higher in my order of preference? After all, he’s petty, spoiled, unscrupulous, and almost certainly a self-loathing gay—all the makings of a great soap opera character. He also enjoys heading up to the roof for the occasional date rape, though our clever Jenny turned the tables on him during the masquerade ball. But the problem with Chuck so far is that he’s tethered to best buddy Nate, who’s dragging him down with his dullness. I expect Chuck to get more interesting if he ever gets over his man-crush on Nate and spends more time with Blair, his natural collaborator.
Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford): Zzzzzzzzzzz. Trust fund drained, dad with a coke problem, not so thrilled about the nerf-y life (Blair, Dartmouth, extravagant wealth) that’s been planned out for him. Boo-hoo, kid. Here’s the world’s smallest violin, etc.
Okay, he said 1,000 words later, let’s see what tonight’s hour, “Victor, Victrola,” had to offer:
Oh man, did we start with the right episode or what? Old-timy burlesque! Crazy dream sequences! Fisticuffs! Pleasure overload, pleasure overload…
Where to start? I guess we should kick off with the fallout over the masked ball, where a costume switcheroo found the dull-witted Nate mistaking Jenny for Serena and then confessing he still had feelings for her. This week, Nate tries to bribe Jenny Forrest Gump-style with a fancy box of chocolates, yet the gesture is not only unnecessary, but thwarted by Blair, who happily scoops them up as a peace offering. (Blair’s line, “I prefer the Gold Collection,” may sum up in five words why Nate—or any reasonable guy—could never manage a long-term relationship with her. If she does this much hen-pecking as a teenager, one can only imagine why she’ll be like when she gets older and more set in her ways.)
It turns out not to matter, of course, because Jenny isn’t terribly skilled at hiding secrets. Already miffed at her new disciple for scheming her way into the masked ball with the diamond bracelet, Blair immediately picks up on Jenny’s pitiful attempt to hide news from her and forces her to spill the beans. What follows is a classic case of killing the messenger: It’s not really Jenny’s fault that Nate mistook her for Serena, but Blair dismisses her from her inner circle anyway. Gotta love that little “off with you” wave of the hand; bet the help gets that all the time.
So we’re back to square one with Blair, who’s again been reduced to the scorned tragedienne that she was back when Nate and Serena hooked up a year earlier. And since “Hell hath no fury…,” I fully expect Blair to reassert her malevolent powers in future episodes against all who have wronged her—which is pretty much everybody save for Chuck, who’s both the beneficiary of her romantic desperation (um, yuck) and a natural co-conspirator. Having witnessed Nate’s father’s arrest (and subsequent charges, which I’ll get to in a moment), Blair has plenty of ammunition against her now ex-boyfriend, who’s already dealing with major problems of his own. As ever, the writers and Leighton Meester do a fine job painting Blair as a sympathetic monster, someone with a bottomless appetite for revenge, but who’s also got her reasons. There’s something fundamentally sad about a girl who’s so lacking in warmth or sensuality; she’s a stiff, and Serena’s presence in her life is a constant reminder of it. The camera didn’t lie when she failed to be her mother’s covergirl a few episodes ago and her spin at the burlesque club is only good enough to get her Chuck.
And how about that burlesque club? As I said in the introduction, I’ve never been much of a Chuck fan, but now I’m thinking that it was just Nate dragging him down. Now, I’m in awe of a kid so morally off-kilter that he’d present his father with an extensive business plan for dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a burlesque club. (Kudos to Chuck’s dad Bart for delivering the line of the night: Upon seeing his austerely dressed boy, he says, “What’s with the business formal? Are you being arraigned for something?”) Amazingly, daddy eventually signs off on his son’s plans, but not before Chuck avenges his initial rejection by drunkenly informing Bart’s tentative flame Lily about the hot Asian chick that joined his dad in the limo. (And she’s turns out to be journalist? Really? Is that the best the writers could come up with?) I can’t imagine Chuck’s little dalliance with Blair will result in something long-term, mainly because of Chuck’s famed predilection for the company of random women and (in my view) his latent predilection for the company of men.
Though “Victor, Victrola” is an eventful hour for many of the principals, it was probably the most Nate-centric episode to date, which makes me surprised by how much I liked it. One of the reasons is that Nate, who I’d pegged my introduction as a whiner, finally does have a few things to be mopey about: He doesn’t love Blair and fails to keep that nugget of information under wraps; he loves Serena, but sees her falling ass over teakettle for another guy; and his mother is an oblivious Stepford Wife. But his biggest problem is dear old dad, who like any good father framed his son for his own cocaine addiction and then wasted what turned out to be embezzled money to buy more blow. And then, in classic Josh Schwartz style, he slugs Nate in front of the cops! With his trust fund drained and dad in jail on $1 million bail, Nate looks to drop down the social ladder while hitting plenty of rungs with his chin along the way. Unless mommy has a Julie Cooper-like knack for bedding the wealthy elite, they could fall below the Humphreys on Gossip Girl’s Poverty Row (i.e. upper-middle-class Brooklyn).
Last but not least, there’s Dan and Serena, who are coming to that point in their relationship where, to put it in Simpsons terms, Fluffy Bunny and Fuzzy Bunny are experiencing “throbbing biological urges.” The trouble for Dan is that he’s still a virgin and Serena… well… isn’t, which puts him again in the awkward situation of having to impress a girl who’s well above his station. His anxieties spin off into most inspired material of the night, a pair of dream sequences where he fails to impress the judges with his love-making technique and later tries to pick up pointers from how he imagined Nate and Serena might have done it. (The leg wrap is “sexy and increases stability”!) Despite several incidents of coitus interruptus—one of them courtesy of Dan’s ex Vanessa, who I’ll write about at a later date—Dan and Serena finally try to get it on. (And with the thumbs up from Rufus, too. Do cool dads like this really exist?) Of course, there was never any way they were going through with it, but it was sweet to see them try anyway. Besides, in an episode with this much pervy material, a little restraint doesn’t hurt.
• I wrote in the introduction that “Dare Devil” was the season’s best episode, but I’m ready to anoint this one the new standard-bearer, despite Blair’s conspicuous lack of evil scheming.
• Nice line from Rufus when Jenny asks him about the missing bracelet in the murkiest terms possible: “You mean the ambiguous vague thing next to the nondescript place?”
• Having “Gossip Girl” do a query on the identity of the “masked girl” promised that for once GG would have an active role in what happens on the show, rather than mythologizing the stuff we already know. Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way.
• Dan’s first sex dream, the one about the judges, reminded me of a weird dream a friend told me about in high school. If I recall correctly, he dreamt he was sitting behind a table with a stamp and a stamp pad while the disembodied breasts of various women were presented to him in monotonous order. It was his job to stamp “approved” or “rejected” on them like he was a sour bureaucrat filing papers deep inside a government building. That’s all there was to the dream, stamping breasts, which strikes me now as the adolescent boy version of counting sheep. The point being, Dan could probably relate: Sexy dreams, when twisted around by anxiety and uncertainty, often turn out to be not-so-sexy.