“Reversals of Fortune”
September 14th, 2009
There is no question, whatsoever, that Gossip Girl is a flawed show which only on occasion finds its true potential. That potential is most often bottled when we get the opportunity to see Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf together, trading barbs and turning what is often a depressing melodrama that fails to capture the potential of this concept. By so isolating the show’s universe in a small collection of characters (many of whom I, you know, don’t like), the show has become less about teenagers and their wily ways and more about these individual characters repeating the same cycles over and over again. For Chuck and Blair, this has weakened their appeal: for Dan and Serena, it’s eliminated it altogether.
So why do I keep watching? I think part of me wants to be able to say that I’ve still got a less than critically fascinating series on my schedule, but at least some part of me wants to see how the show handles itself as the teen soap of its generation. There is something about Gossip Girl’s bizarre dichotomy between cultural awareness and actual ratings/quality which says something about this generation of television viewers, and Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are not slouches behind the scenes.
“Reversals of Fortune” does what every Gossip Girl premiere does, playing off of the uncertainty of what happened in the past summer and the kind of mistakes and ill fortunes that the characters find themselves in as a new year begins. It’s the same formula the show has used numerous times before, but it also still works, in particular this time around as the show resists turning Dan and Serena to the forefront and lets Blair and Chuck’s relationship keep its spark by playing with expectations.
It’s not high drama, but it’s the right kind of premiere for the series.
What doesn’t work about the premiere is the same sort of artifice that the show has been burned by before. It’s one thing to play up teen soap stereotypes, but the bigger problem is when they lean closer to more adult soap operas. The introduction of Scott as Dan’s long-lost step-brother out to meet the brother he ever knew and to find the parents he’s always wondered about is the kind of storyline that works when we care about the character searching. However, Scott is being played as a manipulative and conniving teen, a blank slate of emotion who we’re supposed to believe is out to destroy Rufus and Lily as opposed to, you know, becoming part of their lives. Even if they get to that point (I don’t see how, the actor’s a bore), the sensationalism of the buildup feels contrived beyond repair, from his efforts to get close to Vanessa to his lie-filled phone calls while ominous music tolls the birth certificate in his hand.
And I have my concerns with Nate’s storyline, primarily because I think Chace Crawford tends to be a bit of a dull portion of the show. I’ve always thought that his storylines are actually quite interesting, but the show never really gives them any spark. However, with the addition of JoAnna Garcia, I think that Nate has a chance of surprising this year. Garcia is not entirely on her Privileged-like behaviour in the new role as a fellow child from a political family (one which very conveniently happens to be in a feud with Nate’s family), but I find her charming and I find Nate more interesting when he’s doing less brooding and more inadequate asserting of his own identity. It’s not particularly profound, but it’s more watchable than he’s been in the past.
The episode spends most of its time on the mystery of Serena Van Der Woodsen’s less than classy summer, covered to excess in the tabloids as she wanders the city being followed every way she goes by paparazzi. Part of the storyline is the show enjoying the tabloid nature of Serena’s existence, showing pictures of her partying around and inferring she slept with Christian Ronaldo amongst others. We know, considering the end of last season, that her trip to Europe was about searching for her father (and Carter helping her with her search), but the show enjoys playing with the element of mystery (sometimes to a fault). I think Blake Lively was solid in the episode, capable of acting when the script requires, and I like Sebastian Stan (who spend the summer on NBC’s ill-fated Kings) as Carter, played here a bit less evil and manipulative. When the episode concludes their story with them together and Serena suffering from a summer created entirely by some serious daddy issues, it feels like a genuine way of twisting the tabloid into the dramatic (especially when Serena turns into an agent of her own publicity instead of an innocent doe).
And really, the episode is at its level best when it indulges in some shattered expectations, as we find Chuck playing the field at episode’s opening only to discover that Blair was in on it – it was all a game for Chuck to be able to do what he does best (play the field) while Blair does what she does best (publicly humiliating rivals), something that keeps their relationship from falling apart. It’s charm ng at episode’s end when they’re very honest with each other: she’s concerned that they need this sort of competitive edge to stay together, but Chuck and Blair both know that there are other games they’ll be able to play when they realize that playing with Chuck’s playboy ways is about as dangerous as you can get. It was a simple storyline that let the show have its cake, putting them at odds with each other and letting Meester/Westwick have fun, while not breaking them up and going through that cycle all over again.
Yeah, eventually the show will do just that, but I do think that this is a strong ensemble, and the episode did well in sidelining the parental drama (Lily off caring for her mother and Rufus largely there to feed the Scott storyline) and just letting the future college students play a bit before classes begin. It’s not the most exciting or scandalous start, sure, but it was a subtle and solid piece of setup work.
- Putting Eric and Jenny together is a fine example of the show using Taylor Momsen to their best advantage. Jenny stopped the show dead when she became a problem child, but having her and Eric serve as a Greek Chorus (effectively) in the episode is the ideal way for them to use the character who is unique situated on the outskirts of the older generation’s madness.
- Have I mentioned recently how sad I am that The CW chose to cancel Privileged? I know that it doesn’t fit their demo, but with Life Unexpected coming at midseason the network is still dealing with sweeter, less exploitative shows, and it had a solid first season.