Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Fall ’08 Season TV Blitz, Day 1: Gossip Girl & 90210

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 4, 2008

Where does the time go

Seems like only yesterday, we were having our minds blown by Big Shots and Carpoolers for the very first time. And yet, here we are, ready to rev up a brand new 2008 TV season, full of all the wonder, trepidation and sexual arousal we’ve come to associate with the months of September and October. Truth told, it’d be a profound sort of accomplishment for it to be as unremarkable as last season’s crop, which produced nary a breakout show and only one or two arguable Brilliant But Cancelleds. But that’s what makes this time of year so exciting–the amount of unfortuante retreads, “hey, what if?” scenarios taken too far, and anachronisms-to-be is always capable of reaching new heights. Plus, everyone starts the season 0-0, right? Let’s get our hands dirty.

Gossip Girl

(Monday Night, 8-9 PM, CW)

New Cast: Possibly, don’t know regular cast well enough or who’s sticking around.

Where We’re At Now: After spending the summer apart, Serena and Dan contemplate if they broke up for the right reasons, while the former pines solo and the latter sleeps around a lot. Chuck attempts to win Blair back, but heartbroken and still angry, she decides to try making him jealous with a new-guy-for-rent. Nate fools around with a married woman, Jenny tries to get ahead in the fashion world and make things right with Eric, and everyone goes to a fancy party at the end. Kristen Bell’s disembodied voice continues to give the play-by-play.

Thoughts: The really remarkable thing about Gossip Girl, I’ve realized from my admittedly limited exposure to it, is how little it pretends to be a show about the teenage experience. These people are supposed to still be teens, right? But they don’t look like teens, they don’t act like teens, they don’t vacation liek teens and they certainly don’t go to class like teens–when Blair tells Chuck that she’ll see him in school, I did a double-take, like “oh yeah, these people are supposed to be significantly younger than me.” I don’t mean this as a criticism, though–frankly, it’s a little refreshing for a teen drama to be so blatant in its acknowledgement of the wish fulfillment fantasy it represents to its teen and pre-teen constituents, since that’s what it is for the great majority of ’em, even when the show isn’t about Upper East Side millionaires vacationing in the Hamptons.

Equally shrewd, I think, is the show’s new advertising campaign, which you’ve no doubt seen plastered on buses and in magazines for the last few months. Featuring the show’s characters in provocative positions, they expressly market the show as a guilty pleasure, even showcasing select quotes from conservative critics, decrying the show’s loose morality. In actuality, the show remains relatively tame–this is still the CW, after all, and taboos aren’t exactly being shattered–but the campaign pulls the double whammy of making kids watching it who don’t know better feel like badasses, while consoling the adults watching it that should know better by saying “It’s OK, everyone else does it too.”

Point being, Gossip Girl is a show that, now as ever, knows what it’s doing. It’s hard to care about too many of the show’s details–besides the seethingly scummy Chuck (who I pray the show doesn’t pussy out, like they did to Luke on The O.C), I still find all the characters blandly likeable, blandly dislikeable, or just altogether bland, and their interpersonal relations thrill me little. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t find a certain measure of the show fascinating. It’s the ultimate Velvet Rope show on TV right now, the kind of show that scintillates you with the promise of access, visting worlds you will surely never visit in real life. As a 22-year-old male I still find it somewhat intoxicating, for the 14-year-old girls out there, I can only imagine the possibilities.

Still Hot / Worth Sticking With?: For a show it seems like everyone was watching last year, Gossip Girl‘s ratings were still surprisingly mediocre–it’ll be interesting to see if that semblence of Under-the-Radarness will ultimately just serve as a sort of cred builder to provide the core of an all-out ratings assault in the show’s second season (the premiere’s ratings were good, but still nothing comiserate with the show’s buzz). In any event, for teen drama fans out there, it’ll probably be worth sticking with for at least another season or two, until everyone has slept with everyone else, the kids go to college, and/or Kristen Bell gets a reveal, at any point of which, the show will essentially be over.


(Tuesday Night, 8-9 PM, CW)

Starring: Shenae Grimes, Tristan Wilds, AnnaLynne McCord, Dustin Milligan, Jessica Stroup, Michael Steger, Ryan Eggold, Lori Loughlin, Jessica Walter, Jennie Garth, Tracy Clark, Rob Estes

Premise: The Wilsons, parents Harry (Estes) and Debby (Loughlin) and children Annie (Grimes) and the adopted Dixon (Wilds), move from Kansas to California, where Harry has a job as principal of the kids’ new school, to look after their sick matriarch Tabitha (Walter). Annie meets high school queen Naomi (McCord), the girlfriend of her own ex-flame Ethan (Milligan), who she witnesses cheating on Naomi shortly upon arriving. Dixon tries to make the lacrosse team, but is framed for starting a fight by one of the team’s disapproving preps. Harry feuds with Naomi’s mother (Clark) over her daughter’s work, and it is revealed that the two had a relationship many years ago, which might have resulted in a child Harry never knew about. There’s also Silver (Stroup), a tough girl who runs a tell-all blog, Navid (Steger), a flamboyant would-be-journalist who might be gay, Mr. Matthews (Eggold), a hip young English teacher, and Ms. Kelly Taylor (Garth), the school’s guidance counselor and an old friend of Harry’s.

Thoughts: Well. the world might not have needed a new 90210, but it certainly got one. What has become abundantly clear about the old 90210 over time, though, is that it only really became popular for two reasons:

  1. The hunkiness of Jason Priestley and Luke Perry
  2. No one really knew what a good teen drama looked like yet

For its time, Beverly Hills, 90210 was certainly a marvel, and coming off a decade where all the best soapy dramas had casts with an average age of 47, it’s no surprise that the kids took to what at that point was the closest representation to teen life to be shown in the potboiler drama format. But it was slow, it was preachy, and at first at least, it was kind of lame. Yeah, eventually it got pretty ridiculous, and that was a good thing, but even those episodes are still pretty uneventful by today’s teen drama standards.

This new 90210 is a weird creature, since it appears to want to recapture that sort of shocking, guilty-pleasure edge that the original show had upon its premiere nearly two decades ago. But especially with Gossip Girl so imediately evident as a point of comparison, a revival of the spirit of 90210 feels distinctly quaint, and basically harmless. There’s some attempts at edginess–an implied blow job in the first fifteen minutes, a glitzy sweet sixteen party at the climax, and more hip music (MGMT, The Ting Tings) than you can shake a stick at. But come on, this is a show where the kids still listen to and care what their parents think, a show where students still work on the school paper, a show where at least one member of the cast is probably still a virgin (as opposed to GG, where the amount of past sex referenced in the first episode is probably greater than the sum total of the fucking that happened in BH90210‘s first two seasons). It’s a show where the kids are still, well, kids, sort of. And these days, that makes for a show that only your younger sister should be watching.

Of course, The O.C. managed to strike that sort of balance between the sinfully over-the-top and the sweetly good-natured, and received great adulation for it. But it’s hard to imagine 90210‘s cast or plotting to reach that sort of blend successfully–aside from the holdovers from the original show (can’t wait to see Shannon Doherty in later eps–she just gets hotter every over-the-top TV role she plays), the only characters that make much of an imperssion are Naomi, because she looks almost exactly like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (and even almost has the same name), Annie, because Shenae Grimes makes Colista Flockhart look like Camryn Manheim after two months on the couch, and Dixon, because he’s played by Michael from The Wire. The best part of the episode was seeing him weep over getting kicked off the lacrosse team (the way he used to best bond with his adopted father, you see) while picturing how he really wants to just start yelling “FUCK THIS LACROSSE BULL! Y’ALL WOULDN’T LAST TWO SECONDS ON MY BLOCK!!

That’s not to say there aren’t some great, non-imaginary “Welcome to the 90210, BITCH!” type moments of hilarity. There’s a part when Jennie Garth reprimands Silver (who is also her sister, somehow) for ragging on the new kids in her blog, proclaiming “How many times do we have to talk about this blog of yours?? All it does is cause problems!!” Even better is later, when Ethan’s lacrosse-playing asshole buddy reprimands him for defending Michael from The Wire, exclaiming “Dude, don’t be such a puss. Who cares about that puss???” These moments would be enough to make the show watchable if they comprised the majority of the episode, but unfortunately, most of the show is too earnest for these kinds of cheap thrills.

Hit Potential: Apparently the ratings were pretty good, but I just don’t know if I can see it sticking. I can’t imagine any self-respecting teen being able to go back to this after the untouchable glamour of Gossip Girl and the pseudo-reality (but actually even more untouchable glamour) of The Hills, and anyone younger has Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers to occupy their lives 24/7. Maybe the brand name just holds this kind of sway for the youth, though, regardless of the content within. Will be interesting to see if it makes it to a second season.

Worth Watching?: If you’re not a megafan of the original, probably not. If you’re feeling nostalgic for a simpler time in televisual teen drama, though, it’s certainly a serviceable throwback.

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