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Gossip Girl isn’t a guilty pleasure. It’s just terrible

I have a complicated relationship with Gossip Girl.

As a teenager, I watched it religiously while making a point of telling everyone in my vicinity that I perfectly knew it was dumb, thank you very much, and that I only watched it because it was funny in the ridiculous kind of way but I know it’s dumb, ok? (Which is the position of many of its viewers, it would seem.) It was the quintessential guilty pleasure, and boy did I feel guilty about it.

As an adult with a Netflix account, however, the pleasure part of the equation has disappeared entirely – and my feelings have become terribly confusing. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand while I was still watching this show, every day, sometimes three episodes in a row. I didn’t love to hate it or hate to love it, I just hated it. It was soul-sucking and bad and frustrating and I couldn’t reach the end of the season fast enough. Phew – only X episodes more to go, I told myself with a troubling sense of desperation, the way a child tells himself he’s almost done with his asparagus. I was like an addict who kept on snorting even though their body had gotten used to the coke long ago and it just made them sick now. I was lost.

Fortunately, those times are behind me. I kept watching until the beginning of season six – until the sheer badness of it all became so painful that I just had to stop. I can’t take it anymore. I’m done.

This show is terrible.

“Well, duh,” would the average Internet viewer – and even average Gossip Girl fan – respond. That’s the point. Of course it’s cliché! Of course it’s unrealistic! Of course it’s full of plot holes and cheap melodrama! That’s why it’s so fun! Have you never heard of so Bad it’s Good?

Except Gossip Girl isn’t so Bad it’s Good, it’s just so Bad it’s Bad. The first season was entertaining when it was still fresh; the characters had potential to grow, the writing could improve. But the following seasons have kept following the exact same patterns that shaped the first, the show endlessly recycling itself year after year without bringing anything new to the table. You can only stretch the concept of the silly teen soap for so long.

So what’s wrong with Gossip Girl? As long-time viewers will know, way too many things to dissect in one article. The show is rife with discontinuity errors, unrealistic plotlines, nonsensical schemes, blatant misogyny, awful role models and even more awful relationships. This has already been pointed out: it’s usually considered part of the thrill.

But it’s hard to call it an actual thrill. What’s remarkable about Gossip Girl is that, despite being a tale of drama, love, betrayal, passion, jealousy, and other supposedly exciting things, it’s incredibly… dull.

Brace yourselves. This is gonna be a rant – a beautifully, wonderfully written and organized rant, of course, but a rant all the same. So, by all means…


too much conflict, too few consequences

We’re getting action, for sure – that’s not the problem. Quite the contrary. Each season is packed with so many scandals, lies and public humiliations it’s hard to keep track, and it easily feels like ten episodes have gone by instead of just two. In the words of Jessica Pressler:

In the first thirteen episodes, Schwartz has already included a pregnancy scare, a marriage proposal, an attempted rape, a lost virginity, a near-deadly accident, a divorce, a suicide attempt, multiple thefts, blackmail, a drug addiction, a threesome, at least two counts of breaking and entering, and an eating disorder.

Pressler considers this nauseating overdose of conflict to be a good thing. “The best, and most addictive, aspect of Gossip Girl,” she writes, “is that the delectable tangle of jealousy, loyalty, confusion, and general teen angst coils and recoils at such a frenetic pace.” But this frenetic pace is actually Gossip Girl‘s greatest weakness. Not only does the action unwind like an epileptic having a seizure, it never has a real impact on the protagonists – making much of the plot essentially meaningless.

This is no exaggeration. Nothing the characters experience ever seem to matter. No matter how scandalous, how outlandish or traumatic – they promptly return to their privileged lives without a second thought, shopping at Dior or feeding the ducks like nothing happened.

There are simply too many examples to list – try recapping the entire series.

Lily and Rufus Humphrey have a love child and they share a tearful reunion after half a season of build-up? He disappears as soon as the truth is revealed, never to be mentioned again. Everyone forgets about him – his parents, siblings, and all of New York’s high society. You’d think such a juicy little secret would have made more waves, not to mention the fact that one of the series’ Designated Romantic Pairings share a sibling.

Serena van der Woodsen has an affair with a married congressman who abandons her after a car accident and frames her as the culprit to save his reputation? One would expect this to elicit at least some level of grief, heartbreak and trauma, but next episode she’s perfectly happy cooing in her new boyfriend’s arms, who also happens to be said congressman’s… cousin. Normal.

I could go on like this forever, but my point is clear: nothing the characters say, do or experience has any real consequences on their lives.

That’s a pretty egregious oversight for a show that has built its entire premise on the fear of scandal. If scandals don’t have lasting repercussions for the ones involved, why should we care? It also seriously diminishes the supposed power and aura of the eponymous Gossip Girl. We’re told on many occasions that she’s a force to be reckoned with, a destroyer of lives, someone the characters are actively afraid of. “If people find out about this, I’m screwed” is a sentiment expressed in basically every episode. Except every so-called “scandal” is promptly forgotten, the characters always returning to their merry lives. Which begs the question: why are they all so afraid of Gossip Girl in the first place, when nothing she releases has a significant impact?

a lot of fuss is made, but nothing actually happens

Gratuitous conflict is also what gives the show its troubling sense of blandness. You can try to dazzle the viewers with infidelities, loveless marriages to princes, tragic miscarriages, fathers coming back from the dead: when it all keeps unfolding without seriously ruffling the characters, it’s boring. One of the most extreme examples is Blair Waldorf suffering a miscarriage in season five. Much like everything else, Blair forgets about it next episode. She forgets about a miscarriage. It’s never mentioned again, and she doesn’t exhibit signs of PTSD or depression. This is disturbing. Does anyone over at Gossip Girl even know what a miscarriage is? Do they know it’s not something most women get over like they would a broken nail?

If one is unable – or unwilling – to properly handle complex and emotionally charged issues, one shouldn’t bring them up in the first place. Gossip Girl keeps touching on difficult issues – parental neglect, heartbreak, emotional abuse, losing a relative, treason from close friends or family – but seldom grants them the subtlety and emotional depth they require. Characters swiftly move on and forgive one another everything, even the most hideous offenses, just in time to attend the next party or whatever shenanigans they happen to be involved in this Tuesday night.

this is just plain lazy

Fuck, I think that’s what frustrates me most: the laziness of it all. It’s the screenwriters bringing up plotlines, characters and relationships for the sake of it only to discard them when they’re bored, without making the slightest effort to offer a proper resolution. Blair and Dan’s affair is a good example – after a whole season of build-up, the relationship lasts approximatively five episodes before petering out, Blair returning to Chuck without a second thought (and without dignifying Dan with an actual break-up.)

The worst instance, however, is the infamous Finale. Much has been written about it – how the reveal of Dan Humphrey as Gossip Girl made no sense whatsoever, even during the final season, as there were simply too many situations where it would have been impossible for him to send a blast. But the screenwriters’ carelessness goes beyond discontinuity errors. In a brilliant (and decidedly bitter) article, writer and long-time fan Carina Adly MacKenzie explains how the sloppy decision to turn Dan into Gossip Girl has hurt not only the character but the series itself:

I can’t reconcile the person Dan was in Season 1 with a guy who would violate the private details of his little sister’s sex life in order to “write himself in” to the Upper East Side. (…) Dan-as-Gossip-Girl was a horrible person. He slut-shamed every girl on the Upper East Side, revealed intimate personal information about his own relationships, profited as his friends’ families crumbled under the weight of corruption that he revealed. In deciding (on a random whim, it seems) that Dan was the blogger, the writers retroactively destroyed every good, healthy moment he ever shared with anyone in his life.”

This sums it up pretty well: it seems the screenwriters simply made it up as they went along, leaving misery, retconning and plot holes in their wake, leading fans to invest in characters and storylines only to have the rug pulled under their feet when it was time for a new piece of scandal. This is lazy, terrible writing.

the land of jerk protagonists

It doesn’t help that there isn’t anyone to root for. Gossip Girl is the poster show for Jerk Protagonists – even though the fans have tried to re-brand them as compelling and even admirable heroes. Serena van der Woodsen and Dan Humphrey, who are relatively pleasant at the beginning, undergo massive character derailment and turn into gigantic assholes mid-series. Nate Archibald is a dull hottie who stalks women in spite of their making it clear they’re not interested. Chuck Bass, the “antihero” we’re supposed to love to hate, is a horrible human being, a rapist who regularly uses prostitutes and who tries way too hard to whisper himself into a cool villain; as for Blair Waldorf, the series’ purported break-out character, she’s a mean, pompous, classist bully with unbelievably bad manners. (Her inexplicable rise to fame probably deserves an article of its own.) None of them undergo real character growth to speak of and end the series pretty much how they’ve started.

what could’ve been

The sad thing is, Gossip Girl had potential. I may be ranting, but I’ll be the first to admit the show had brilliantly funny lines and occasional moments of lampshade-hanging cleverness that were truly satisfying. At times, it seemed to be very aware of its protagonists’ flaws. There were even character arcs that felt real and were decently written. I’m thinking of Serena van der Woodsen, a rather sweet (if somewhat dim-witted) former It Girl who descends into a downward spiral in season five and assumes the role of Gossip Girl, thus becoming the cyber bully she’s always despised. She end ups in this role after a series of misfortunes (being fired from two jobs, losing the love of her life to her best friend, being thrashed by said love of her life in his debut novel, discovering her cousin was a con artist hired by her scheming aunt, discovering her absentee father had another daughter, etc). When she’s confronted about her behavior by her half-sister, she explains that being Gossip Girl is literally the only thing she can hang on to – the only thing she has left. It’s both pathetic and touching: we’re seeing a woman who’s always had everything handed to her suddenly left at the margins, feeling like her life is slipping out of her hands. The face-heel-turn was clumsily written, but it still felt real.

And for all the awful relationships in the show, there was one that genuinely moved me: it happened in the twenty-fourth episode of season 2, “Valley Girls”. The episode is built on flashbacks and shows Lily Rhodes as a teenager, meeting with her sister Carol after a long absence. The two sisters have a loving, if strained relationship due to their differing personalities (Lily is a little princess; Carol is more rebellious, choosing to forego privilege and become a rock star in Los Angeles). Despite a fight or two, they stand up for each other, Carol defending Lily against their overbearing mother and taking her under her wing at the end of the episode. It was very sweet.

When we see Carol again, she’s a hypocritical, materialistic crook who hires an actress to pose as her daughter so she can gain access to her trust fund. Oh, and she’s slept with Lily’s husband while they were married and had a baby with him. Oh, and Lily has her arrested and steals her inheritance for herself.

That’s it. A touching, meaningful relationship tossed aside without a second thought, all for the sake of shock value. We are never told what happened to Lily and Carol’s friendship for it to deteriorate this way, how the two sisters who once lived together in Los Angeles became such bitter enemies. It just happened. Because conflict. Thank you.

That’s the essence of Gossip Girl: it could have been good, but it keeps pissing all over itself.

in closing

For the record, I don’t think that Gossip Girl being a teen soap – that it’s supposed to be extravagant and silly – is an excuse. It’s too easy to invoke silliness and extravagance to justify bad writing. It’s perfectly possible to create an outwardly cliché, over-the-top show that’s also clever, with emotional depth and interesting characters. And it’s been argued that Gossip Girl is this – that it’s actually really clever under all the badness, or provides deep social commentary (please). Acknowledging the show is silly doesn’t excuse its inherent silliness, and the show itself hanging a lampshade on the stupid doesn’t make up for the stupid. A bad show that knows it’s bad is still bad. And I don’t think Gossip Girl knows it’s bad: it’s obvious it takes itself quite seriously.

… all that being said…

… I’ll readily admit the recaps are hilarious!

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