31 Pilots in 31 Days: Gossip Girl

When it was originally on: 2007-2012

Original network: The CW

Where you can stream it now: HBO Max

Had I seen it before: No, but I HAD listened to the the Too Long; Didn’t Watch podcast episode where Jon Hamm watches this episode and the finale and then describes his experience.

What IMDb says: Privileged teens living on the Upper East Side of New York can hide no secret from the ruthless blogger who is always watching.

Why I picked it: I alluded to it yesterday, but I wanted a more conventional, network teen soap as a counterpoint to the Euphoria pilot. Having already reviewed the pilots for Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and The OC in previous pilot review projects, Gossip Girl seemed like it should be next in line.

Part of why I like reviewing such shows is because as popular as they are, they don’t always get a lot of respect simply because they’re teen shows. I like applying my weird brand of analytical scrutiny to stigmatized content to see if the stigma is warranted.

What I liked: They did a pretty good job of setting up the Serena/Blair rivalry, and making it into a shorthand for how we should feel about a lot of the other characters. By quickly establishing that Serena = good, and Blair = bitch, we can learn a lot about the rest of our characters by whose side they take. Jenny goes behind Blair’s back to invite Serena to a party; Nate starts out as Blair’s boyfriend, clearly wants to be with Serena, but is at least a good enough dude to feel sorry for Blair.

Part of what’s interesting here is that on paper, Blair has legitimate reasons to be mad at Serena, yet the pilot still inarguably frames Serena as sympathetic, and Blair as less sympathetic. Part of this is that we don’t really learn about Serena’s misgivings until later in the episode, and we see Blair be rather cold and unforgiving even before she knows the whole truth, i.e. that Serena drunkenly canoodled Blair’s boyfriend (it is unclear whether or not this canoodling became full-on sex or not, hence my vagueness.) Another part of it is just in the ways that Leighton Meester (Blair) and Blake Lively (Serena) play their respective characters.

We also have the mysterious “Gossip Girl” suggesting that at least part of Blair’s coldness is because she’s enjoyed a certain amount of queen bee status while Serena was away, and she doesn’t want to give it up. I thought I might find the “Gossip Girl” framing device obnoxious, but it does mean the show can suggest drama that may or may not have actually transpired, leaving us to untangle the truth from the gossip as we watch. Maybe Serena DOES have an actual alcohol problem, or maybe she just took it too far one night; Maybe Serena and Blair really were having a passive aggressive cat fight on the stairs of the Met… or maybe it’s just two teenagers who are still unsure of what their relationship is supposed to be and so they’re awkward around each other.

While I don’t typically like too much parent drama mixed into my teen dramas, Gossip Girl has some intriguing prospects on this front. Dan’s dad and Serena’s mom have some sort of past, and they’re both single now. What’s going to happen there, and how is it going to affect the budding romance between Dan and Serena? We also have Nate’s dad urging him not to break up with Blair because he’s on the verge of closing a big business deal with Blair’s mother. Parents using the teenagers as pawns in their own drama which surely will stir up even more drama for the teens is an interesting idea that you don’t see in every teen soap.

I also like Dan, and particularly Penn Badgley’s performance as Dan. He does a great job of exhibiting that angsty teen duality. One one level, Dan wants to be to be accepted by his peers, and it bothers him that he isn’t. The script never has Dan admit to to this directly. Instead, Dan pretends he’s too cool to “fit in” and he doesn’t care. This should only get more interesting if/when Dan continues to build a relationship with Serena. Will he get absorbed into her ritzy rich kid clique… or will Dan be just the ticket Serena needs to break free of her old friends? Either way, I felt like Dan had some layers that a lot of other characters didn’t.

I also love the sibling relationship between Dan and Jenny. I kept expecting this show to do the cliché thing where a guy becomes attractive to a girl by virtue of defending her honor against some sleezy, horndog guy. Instead, Serena watches Dan defend his little sister against the aforementioned sleezy horndog, and that was a refreshing change of pace.

What I didn’t like: So I get that shows need antagonists, but our antagonist here (Chuck) is literally a sexual predator with no discernible character traits beyond being a sexual predator. Now, part of that is because we’re talking about a pilot from 2007 and so certain aspects just don’t age very well. Unfortunately, in 2022 these scenes where Chuck is forcing himself on Serena or getting Jenny drunk so he can force himself on her make the show darker than I think the creators meant for it to be. Gossip Girl seems like it should be a relatively fluffy guilty pleasure, and these scenes snapped me out of that escapism. Again, I can’t stress this enough, Chuck has zero defining characteristics outside of wanting to have sex and his disregard for consent, and it seems like he’s gonna be sticking around for a while.

While Serena is certainly likable enough… I don’t know that I’d really call her interesting. I think this might be by design, so that almost any teenage girl watching can find Serena both relatable and aspirational at the same time. Serena can be glamorous, yet not superficial; social, but not popular. However, when I ask myself questions like “What does Serena really think about the world around her?” or “What kinds of choices does Serena make as she goes about her day to day life?” I come up empty.

I also think that this pilot introduced so many different things, some of them inevitably ended up underbaked. We know Serena has a brother who attempted suicide, and is now in some kind of a hospital for it. It appears their mother has been keeping this a secret. We don’t get enough time with this brother for him to be anything other than “the boy who attempted suicide” and that’s a bit of a bummer, especially since the Dan/Jenny sibling relationship was done quite nicely, and seeing Serena interact with people besides her old friends might’ve kept her from being so bland.

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: I wouldn’t necessarily mind it… but I can’t say I’m excited to either.

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