Imagine Beverly Hills 90120 without any of the guilt.
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The prep-school soap opera Gossip Girl (The CW, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) is not as good—that is, not as bad, not quite so fabulously trashy—as the best-selling series of young-adult novels on which it's based. Like many adaptations of status-porn lit, the show lost some edge in the translation from the page, where the flat presentation of brand names gives every moment of conspicuous consumption a sinister aura. Further, because of the network's lingering vestiges of a social conscience—or, at least, the obligation of its standards and practices department to keep howling watchdog groups at bay—the kibosh has been put on the books' casual seaminess. Out went the chain smoking and the recreational bulimia.
Despite these limitations, Gossip Girl is still without prime-time precedent in its little-league libertinism. It's been a long seven years since Beverly Hills 90210, once the gold-card standard for teen soaps, disappeared from the prime-time schedule. Loyal consumers of that Aaron Spelling drama could safely expect the show's good-kid protagonists to learn a tidy lesson from any moral transgression or deviation from Middle American propriety. On Bev 9, when Brenda Walsh lost her virginity, a pregnancy scare swiftly followed. When the heroines of Gossip Girl bed their rep-tied stud muffins, the consequences, if any, are strictly social. Transgressive frolic is the meat of the show.
The good girl—the less-bad girl—is Serena van der Woodsen, a soignée blonde returning to Manhattan's Constance Billard School after a year in exile at boarding school. She's a junior—which makes her, what, 16?—and Blake Lively, the actress cast in the part, was 19 when she shot the pilot, but Serena carries herself like a 35-year-old with a fantastic divorce settlement. Gracefully embittered, her eyes Olympic pools of knowingness, Serena could do a believably world-weary cover of "Is That All There Is?"
The bad girl—the mean girl whose bitchery will prod the series forward, the brunette—is Blair Waldorf. Once Serena's closest friend, she's now her best nemesis. As we learn via hazy flashback, after Serena got busy with Blair's man one Champagne-fueled night, the queen bee declared blondie persona non grata. Hence: Serena's year in the wilderness, or at Choate or wherever. Thus: the basic knot at the center of the narrative.
Although we have that helpful difference in hair color to distinguish between the ladies, sorting out the boys is a trickier task. Dan Humphrey, with his humdrum surname, must be the upper-middle-class bohemian among the Upper East Side Brahmins, which makes Nate Archibald the total blank—the empty blazer whose only sign of life is an ambivalence about whether to go to Dartmouth. The rake, however, stands out. His name's Chuck Bass, and he seems to have transferred to Constance Billard from the James Spader Academy for Evil Preppies. Though Chuck was born with an entitled pout on his mouth, he's far too jaded to bother with active sulking. The lad spends his free time trying to convert Nate to libertinism and honing his date-rape technique. That's him in the ascot.
So, there's this precocious flock of elites, and then there's you, the adult viewer, at home, maybe delightedly groaning at their nicely predictable antics along with your better half, maybe digesting this effective nonsense covertly, as if it were opium or a box of donut holes. What do you want from them? An airbrushed do-over of high school that stimulates all its anxieties and then soothes them in a tidy hour? A vision of how the other tenth-of-a-percent lives that plays to your most salacious suspicions? Shows like Gossip Girl get labeled guilty pleasures, but I can't quite see why guilt should figure into it. Most of the grown-ups on prime-time dramas behave like children anyway, so where's the shame in escaping into a teenie confection like this?
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph from Gossip Girl © the CW Television Network.