To repeat one of the most pressing questions of our era: Who is Gossip Girl (the CW, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET)? People who like TV but do not watch Josh Schwarz's teensploitation soap (that is, most people) know her as a pure media phenomenon. She gives good spectacle.
The circus of paparazzi stalkings, Page Six items, obsessive-compulsive blogging, and New York self-regard that characterizes the show's publicity is its own tasty diversion. Without even trying, an innocent member of the public can follow the alleged feuds and love lives of the cast's wide-smiling starlets and brooding young studs, all of whom seem to be made out of exceptionally high-grade plastic.
Meanwhile, casual admirers—those of us who occasionally, but only occasionally, help ourselves to Gossip Girl's sumptuous buffet of classic junk-food—know her to be the omniscient narrator whose perspective combines a God's-eye view of the story's expensively educated brats with a Devils Wear Prada-level vision of their New York. We like to fantasize, every now and then, about rich people looking good while behaving badly. That kind of escapism will never go out of business, and Gossip Girl delivers it in of-the-moment fashion. From its parent-baiting promotional campaign to the name-dropping and status-shopping of its stories, the series is so desperately concerned with trendiness that it catches a current mood. Its cravenness has the accidental benefit of making it authentic.
Hard-core addicts recognize Gossip Girl as a kind of eye-candy train wreck. I mean, the CW sent out the screener bearing the first three episodes of this second season in a box bearing the image of Chuck Bass—the big villain, the leading heel, the dashing, thwarted date rapist. On the DVD, Chuck turns his stare to high and holds a sickly sweet slice of cherry pie in his open hand, threatening to smash it. The image—it approximates the aesthetic sensation of a
crushed-velvet painting or a serving of cotton candy—captures the feel of what happens when you put the disc in the machine.
The plots, being at once convoluted and beside the point, are actually difficult to spoil. There's a nonstop braiding of revenge, back-stabbing, hooking up, smoldering, simpering, and long walks in Central Park. When the writers' room is in doubt, it plunges into nonsense boldly: In coming weeks, Chuck will tamper with a deliciously ridiculous May-December romance (featuring that sexual construct of the year, the "cougar"), and that story will cross with another self-consciously silly plotline about Blair wooing a handsome Englishman. How noble is he? "Tom Hanks gave him a Kleenex at Lady Di's funeral."
Gossip Girl, all in all, is the heiress to the Claire Standish fortune. Creator Josh Schwarz makes no secret of his debts to John Hughes, and the queen bees buzzing through the all-buzz show are homages to The Breakfast Club and Molly Ringwald's high-school princess. That type is an American classic, but it's this show's singular knack to turn the princess into a camp queen.