Wallace Shawn on Gossip Girl.

Wallace Shawn on Gossip Girl.

Wallace Shawn on Gossip Girl.

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Nov. 28 2008 7:03 AM

The New Yorker

Wallace Shawn props up our culture on Gossip Girl.

Gossip Girl, the preferred soap opera of the chattering and Internet-nattering classes, continues to bubble away in its second season on the CW. Blair Waldorf—prep-school queen bee, fierce fashionista and antagonista—has commanded the foreground with a cattiness that Erica Kane and an ill-tempered Siamese would both admire. Blair has thus far seen her clique assault Amanda's hairdo with a depilatory, taken a stab at ruining her own mother's fashion show, and crashed a reception hosted by a Yale University administrator, precipitating a hair-pulling tussle with sworn frenemy Serena. Nice work. In recent weeks, Blair has shot her claws in the direction of a new character skillfully portrayed by Wallace Shawn.

As the recent New York Times profile celebrating this guest-starring run indicates, Shawn is an "emissary from the New York intelligentsia," the second such figure to stroll through the show. (Two rungs lower as an intellectual, Jay McInerney reared his large head earlier this season, as if to say to the more ironic chatterers out in TV land, "You are not the kind of guy who would be ogling a teen soap like this at this time of night.") Shawn is, of course, highly regarded for playing himself, or someone like him, in My Dinner With André and treasured for his turn as a debate teacher in Clueless; it would be inconceivable to reference his résumé without mentioning his part as a smug little brigand in The Princess Bride. And I do mean little.

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Shawn's great virtue as an actor is his ever-humming alertness—the sense he gives of something always gestating within the shell of his bald head—but he wouldn't get half the work if he stood any taller than his snack-sized 5-foot-2. One thinks of his turn as Diane Keaton's ex in Manhattan and is reminded of Pauline Kael's observation about Woody Allen's old casting habits: "the peculiar jokiness of his using actors smaller than he is as his romantic rivals." Kael had felt betrayed by Allen's demonstration that "despite his fame he still hates the way he looks." In contrast, Shawn projects no such angst, his mind seemingly at peace with his body and a face that, depending on the situation, can resemble that of a quizzical pug or a cuddly amphibian.

Gossip Girl most often finds him looking like a baby in a bespoke suit. As Cyrus Rose, Blair's mom's new fiancé, he squints, bubbles, gapes with simple cheer, and all but coos, at one point making a lovey-dovey noise that sounds like a muted hybrid of Fozzie Bear's "wocka wocka" and a dishwasher on the rinse cycle. Meeting Blair, Cyrus waddled into a dining room and hugged her with déclassé vigor. The little princess, put out that the newest member of the family fell short of her chiseled ideal of a daddy figure, poutily arranged to undermine him. Some nonsense scheming transpired; Cyrus hired the singer of "She Bop" to play the girl's birthday party; Blair had one of the periodic attacks of conscience such other-insufferable characters need suffer; the two quickly reached détente. Blair had to admire his nonsensical counter-scheming: "Oh my God, you outmaneuvered me! You deliberately let me win counting on the fact that Cyndi Lauper would prey on my emotions." Cyrus twinkled: "I'm a lawyer. I do think a few moves ahead. Some of us can't rely entirely on our looks you know."

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.