The Genius of Gossip Girl

Blake Lively getting ready to film a scene.Photo: Jessica Dimmock

Before you see them, you can hear them.

The sound is low but insistent, a hum that gradually develops into something recognizable. OmigodOmigodOmigod. Dan DanDanDanDan. Gotalktohimgotalktohimgotalktohim!

Samantha Ahern and a group of her girlfriends, in from Smithtown, Long Island, for Samantha’s 16th birthday, are scurrying down 51st Street all at once, their legs moving quickly and purposefully, as if they were one big millipede in True Religion jeans. Their eyes are glassy, their camera phones outstretched. DanDanDanDanDan. It’s the Ultimate Sighting.

Penn Badgley, who plays sensitive and wise Dan Humphrey on the CW’s teen soap opera Gossip Girl, is standing outside the Palace Hotel, where much of the Gossip Girl action takes place. It is there that, later today, Penn’s character will take his girlfriend Serena’s porcelain face into his hands after she has missed the SAT for reasons unknown. He will gaze deeply into her eyes as he says tenderly, “I’m not mad, Serena. I’m worried. Please help me understand what’s going on.” He will do this with complete unself-consciousness, despite the fact that his arch-nemesis Chuck, who also happens to be Serena’s newly acquired stepbrother, is standing there smirking, because 17-year-old Dan is not the sort of teenager who fears public displays of affection. He is sensitive, smart, and loving, not to mention hot, and to teenage girls, for whom such creatures exist only in daydreams, he is perfect.

As the girls chase Penn into his trailer, we (and there are two of us writing this story, but on the subject of Gossip Girl we are like one) know exactly how they feel. One time we played hooky from work for an hour and skip-walked all the way from our offices in far west Soho to the East Village to catch a scene of the show being filmed. Technically, we’re a little old for Gossip Girl—our own high-school experience was kind of a while ago. Like, 90210-was-still-on-the-air a while ago. But it’s not just tweenage girls who are hooked on the show.

At first we cloaked our adoration in irony. “It’s awesomely bad,” we explained to friends. “You know, like Showgirls. Or a Bloomin’ Onion.” But before long we were covering the show pretty much exhaustively on the Daily Intelligencer, the blog we write on And then a funny thing happened: E-mails and texts from fans of all ages began filling our in-boxes. “S. at Cafe Gitane, not with Lonely Boy!” read one text, from a 28-year-old marketing executive. “OMG!” we texted back. “Is she cheating?” “No, he is a gay.” (Translation: Blake Lively, who plays Serena van der Woodsen, was spotted with someone other than Penn Badgley, who plays her onscreen boyfriend and whom she’s rumored to be dating in real life. The “he” who is “a gay” is just some guy who looked that way to the texter.) The more we wrote about Gossip Girl, the more its radically invested fan base began to reveal itself to us. We were like a support group for the fully grown, employed, non-pervert adult fans of the show.

But there should be no shame in a love of Gossip Girl. After all, it is (and we have come to this conclusion honestly) the most awesomely awesome show ever. And so on the eve of the show’s return from writers’-strike limbo, we are here to give you the six best reasons you should openly love Gossip Girl, even if you’ve never seen it before. Why waste so much time writing about something so insipid? Because, dear readers, it’s not.

Reason No. 1 Because ‘Gossip Girl’ is the Greatest Teen Drama of All Time.

The teen drama has been around for literally thousands of years. Helen of Troy was barely a teenager when she was abducted by the king of Athens because he had the hots for her, and hello, talk about drama. But the modern iteration probably started with John Hughes movies, specifically 1984’s Sixteen Candles. The genre has grown and transmogrified over the past few decades—through Beverly Hills, 90210 (good because it was wickedly adult), My So-Called Life (good because it was painfully serious), Clueless (good because it was high satire), and various Freddie Prinze Jr. movies (good because they were bad).

Most recently, there was Josh Schwartz’s The O.C., that show that for two years happily fake-baked under the klieg lights of key demographic attention (anyone ever called you an “asshat”? That would be Schwartz’s fault) and then spectacularly flamed out in an explosion of absurd plotlines and cast defections. Reality television filled the void, as viewers realized that there was no need to watch fake teenagers kissing in a hot tub when there were real ones to be gawked at. With breasts that float better. Enter Laguna Beach and then The Hills, the semi-scripted hyperreality shows that seemed like they might sound the death knell for the teen drama.

Taylor Momsen between scenes.Photo: Jessica Dimmock

But Schwartz was not ready to give up, and just in the nick of time he gave us Gossip Girl. Peopled by preternaturally attractive new stars, dressed in the latest clothes, steeped in simmering emotions, and smothered with a thick coat of money, it’s like The Hills—but with less agonizing dialogue and more human deviance. (Such are the benefits of scripted drama.) In some ways, Gossip Girl is the ultimate teen Frankendrama, with archetypal characters and classic story lines. But it’s also a thoroughly modern take on the genre (it’s a show about a blog, for Perez’s sake!), where teenagers are stalked by camera phones, the parents are as screwed up as the kids, and there are absolutely no consequences for anyone’s actions. (Remember when Donna almost didn’t graduate because she got drunk at the prom? The Gossip Girl kids threw a wild bash at the school pool that caused a near-fatal accident, but got off scot-free when a rich parent paid off the headmistress.) But the best, and most addictive, aspect of Gossip Girl is that the delectable tangle of jealousy, loyalty, confusion, and general teen angst coils and recoils at such a frenetic pace. 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.

Take the episode this fall where all of the kids went to a giant masquerade ball. Handsomely dim Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) is supposed to meet his girlfriend Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), the school’s virgin queen of mean, at the Social Event of the Season. But Nate may actually be in love with Blair’s best friend, Serena, whom he had sex with last year on the bar at the Campbell Apartment. While Nate was clearly thrilled by this experience, Serena was ashamed and fled to boarding school in Connecticut. But now she’s back because her brother Eric tried to commit suicide. Anyway, so Blair found out about Nate and Serena and they broke up, but then Nate’s parents pressured him to reunite with her and give her his great-grandmother’s ring (“the one that Cornelius Vanderbilt gave her”). See, Nate’s dad has a huge cocaine problem and is failing massively at work, and he needs to take Blair’s mom’s fashion company public in order to salvage his career. Meanwhile, Serena (Lively) has gone to the ball with a dork from Dalton (his IM handle is Rich Boy IV), but is really in love with Dan (Badgley), the intellectual outsider from Brooklyn, who loves her back with a sincerity heretofore unseen in any real-life teenage boy with unblemished skin. Did we mention that all of this is being narrated by an anonymous teenage blogger (voiced by Kristen Bell) who puts TMZ to shame? Oh, and Dan’s little sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen) has locked Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick), the show’s brooding Draco Malfoy type, on the roof in his underwear, since he once tried to date-rape her, and she’s rushing out of the building when Nate—whoops!—mistakes her for Serena, since they are wearing masks and both have 200 pounds of blonde hair extensions. So Nate kisses Jenny, thinking it’s Serena, and in the end everything is left perilously up in the air.

Try cramming all of that action into a half-hour of The Hills.

Reason No. 2 Because offscreen, the drama continues.

When the writers’ strike forced Gossip Girl off the air in January, we and every other fan turned almost instantly from gossip about the show to gossip about the actors. It turns out that the people who play a young, beautiful gang of New York friends on TV are actually, well, a young, beautiful gang of New York friends in real life. “It’s kind of like summer camp,” Josh Schwartz marvels. “Everybody got to move out to New York together and set up shop there and go through that together as a group.” And like the group of friends they play on the show, they are living out story lines both glamorous and fraught—and chronicled by the city’s professional gossips.

Onscreen sweethearts Penn and Blake are rumored to be dating in real life. Onscreen frenemies Blake and Leighton are said to “avoid each other like the plague” on set, leaving their castmates to “choose sides.” Ed Westwick, the British actor who plays the scotch-swilling womanizer Chuck, stays in character by appearing louche and drunk at places like the Beatrice Inn. All-American good boy Chace Crawford was said to be dating American Idol’s Carrie Underwood—and, for added spice, former boy-band member JC Chasez. Blake Lively was said to have gotten a secret nose job! A gossip blog said Leighton Meester was spotted smoking a joint at Goldbar! You can practically hear the sign-off as each new rumor hits: XOXO, Gossip Girl.

Taylor Momsen on set. Photo: Jessica Dimmock

“It really does feel like we’re living the show sometimes,” says Penn, who for the record is pretty much exactly like Dan, all cheekbones and philosophical musings. “The psychology of celebrity is such a weird and new thing,” Dan—Penn—says of the cast’s sudden notoriety. “I think the last time people treated anybody else like this was demigods like in the time of ancient Greece.”

He gave a twinkly Dan Humphrey grin and shrugged. “That was absurd then, and it’s even more absurd now.”

But he doesn’t have it nearly as bad as Chace Crawford, whom Penn (self-deprecatingly, adorably) calls the show’s “designated hot guy.” After some haggling involving mentions of well-lit public places, Chace agreed to meet us for a chaste lunch at Chelsea’s Empire Diner. When he walked in, wearing black Levi’s skinny jeans and a Diesel hoodie that hit his slender wrists just so, the restaurant’s flamboyant waiters shrieked and hugged him. They later said it was because he was a regular, but shrieks and hugs are a natural reaction to someone who looks like him. (We should know: By the end of our own conversation, our voices had gone up at least two octaves. Only Mariah Carey’s dogs could hear us.)

“I like to hang out on the Lower East Side,” he said. Hence the skinny jeans. “Don’t try to get anywhere too quickly,” we joked shrilly, immediately loathing ourselves. The cool kids down on Rivington are nowhere near as sycophantic as us. “Most of them don’t even give a shit,” he said.

People who read celebrity magazines certainly gave a shit, especially after Chace started dating Carrie Underwood. “I wasn’t ready for all that craziness,” he admitted. “I didn’t realize what that was going to entail.” Chace and Carrie recently broke up—gloriously, by text message—but the damage had been done. Paparazzi began following him on errands, someone posted his home address in Chelsea, and every little photo op became a gossip story. Rumors that he was dating singer JC Chasez grew so insistent that the actor has been forced to deny his alleged gaydom. (They share a manager, he explains in exasperation, who occasionally arranges for them to appear at the same events.)

After Chace and Ed Westwick were spotted going to Best Buy to pick up movies together, Ed also had to deny to the Daily News that he was dating Chace. (Well, they did get Little Miss Sunshine.)

It’s true: Ed and Chace aren’t dating. It’s better. They’re roommates.

We like to imagine that they live in one of those ridiculous primary-color apartments from The Real World, with a climbing wall and a koi pond and cameras in the shower. But in reality the apartment is more like any apartment shared by guys in their twenties, with scant furniture and video games and food-encrusted dishes.

Ed, who is from a small town outside London, had some difficulty adjusting at first. “I’ll never forget when Ed, he’d gotten some milk from the store so he could use it for tea or whatever,” Chace told us giddily. “He’s got this glass and he’s drinking, and he’s like, ‘This milk is really creamy.’ ” It was half-and-half! Chace busted a gut. We died inside—please don’t tell us that stars really are like us. That’s just gross.

Less than a year later, Ed seems to have settled in nicely. He pals around with hedge-fund managers, plays gigs on the Lower East Side with his band the Filthy Youth, and frequents the Rose Bar, subMercer, and the Beatrice Inn. In other words, he’s living the life.

“Did I tell you I met Albert Hammond Jr. the other night?” he asked Leighton one afternoon at the Rose Bar, when she came in to hang out with him and castmate Jessica Szohr, who plays Dan’s former love interest Vanessa. “It was so fucking cool. He knew who I was. Apparently he’s a fan of Gossip Girl. He was like, ‘I love your character, man.’”

“You love him,” Leighton said, laughing, as Ed waxed on.

“I do, I fucking love him,” Ed said dreamily, putting on Leighton’s sunglasses.

It was Ed’s day off, and he was intoxicated, not only with the idea that a member of the Strokes knew who he was but also with actual booze, having downed approximately four Jack-and-Cokes. Ed, who doesn’t actually turn 21 for another couple of months, knows all the hot bars through Nicole Fiscella, the 28-year-old model who plays Blair’s sidekick, Isabel, and who also happens to have worked as the hostess at Bungalow 8 during its prime. Nicole has supplied the new New Yorkers in the cast with a ready-made circle of friends, including real city gossip fixtures like Arden Wohl and Leven Rambin. She also introduced them to Jacob Willis, a tattooed and friendly real-estate agent from New Zealand with whom Ed has been playing pool all afternoon. Jacob hopes one day to sell one of the Gossip Girl cast members an apartment, which is why drinking with Ed on a Wednesday afternoon basically counts as work.

“Wait until Season 3, when the serious renegotiation takes place and I’m making $10 million a fucking minute,” Ed told him happily. “And you can move in with us. You can move in, and we’ll just be one big disgusting family.”

Ed Westwick and Penn Badgley doing a scene. Photo: Jessica Dimmock

Reason No. 3 Because ‘Gossip Girl’ is changing the very model of a successful TV show.

Before it even aired, Gossip Girl was armed with two great advantages. One was the fan base of Josh Schwartz, which was giddily waiting to see how he’d follow up on The O.C. The other was the legion of young girls who had read the tawdry but addictive Gossip Girl book series by Nightingale-Bamford graduate Cecily von Ziegesar. And yet, the numbers were bad. Really bad. New episodes pulled in an average of 2.5 million viewers, just over half of what The O.C. had the season it was canceled. Teenagers just weren’t gathering around the family tube to catch the show during its 9 p.m. slot. But that didn’t mean they weren’t watching.

New episodes routinely arrived at the No. 1 most-downloaded spot on iTunes, and then there were the hundreds of thousands who were downloading free week-old episodes on the CW’s site. Even executives at Nielsen threw up their hands and admitted that Gossip Girl appeared to be speaking to an audience so young and tech-savvy they hadn’t really figured it out just yet.

This isn’t the first show to find Internet success—Lost and The Office are big download hits, too. But this is the first show that seems to have succeeded primarily on the Internet. There’s something about the combination of the show’s premise, the viewers’ age, and the available technology that has given Gossip Girl a life of its own online. Not only do fans watch the show on their computers, but they post sightings of the actors on gossip blogs and exchange rumors (about both the show and its stars) on fan sites. You can even play Gossip Girl’s Upper East Side on Second Life. It’s not appointment television; it’s a 24-hour conversation. We are all Gossip Girl! And the whole experience can happen sans television.

Or at least that’s the way it used to be. As with most bumblings into new terrain, Gossip Girl is causing some befuddlement at the network. Last week, the CW announced that it was pulling Web-streaming for the season’s final five episodes. “For these next five weeks, the epicenter of the Gossip Girl universe will be on the CW’s broadcast-television airwaves,” said president of entertainment Dawn Ostroff, as if she were annoyed that the epicenter had previously been located in a place where advertisers haven’t yet learned how to reach into the pockets of teenage girls. Up to this point, the strategy for solving the advertising conundrum had been mostly product placement. All the characters talk on Verizon cell phones, and Victoria’s Secret sponsored practically an entire episode, introducing 13-year-olds everywhere to slutty sleepwear. It seemed to be working: “This is my Gossip Girl outfit,” said a twentysomething fan we bumped into on set, smoothing the front of her plaid belted trench. “It was on the show.” (And can be yours for $159 at Nine West stores nationwide.) But placement is just no revenue match for broadcast ads.

As the CW struggles to figure out how to make money off Gossip Girl, it’s overlooking what an amazing thing it has on its hands, which is a show that may foretell a future of multiplatform entertainment whose success is determined not by traditional ratings but by what Schwartz and co–executive producer Stephanie Savage call “cultural permeation.” It’s not a new goal—as Us Weekly editor Janice Min puts it, “The best thing that could happen to a show is for someone to be able to say ‘Jen and Courteney’ and you know they are talking about the stars of Friends“—but it is an entirely new way of getting there.

Reason No. 4 Because of Blake and Leighton.

Gossip Girl’s “Jen and Courteney” would be Blake Lively and Leighton Meester. Theirs is a dynamic that dates back to the dawn of entertainment: the blonde bombshell versus the sassy brunette. Betty and Veronica. Ginger and Mary Ann. Brenda and Kelly.

There are fans of Gossip Girl who prefer Blake’s ethereal Serena, who is all light and earnestness and a little bit foolish. Then there are the viewers who favor Leighton’s Blair, the dark princess, fiercely loyal and cruel to the point of farce, a Heather Chandler for the OMFG generation.

They’re pretty diametrically opposed in real life, too. Just not in the same way.

Blake doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t go out much. Though she says she’s friendly with her castmates, she tends to prefer dinners out with her stylists over running around to the latest hot spots with Leighton, Jessica, Ed, and Chace. She grew up in a show-business family—her father, Ernie Lively, is one of those familiar actors who play cops on television; her brother Jason was Rusty in National Lampoon’s European Vacation—and she presents the pretty, friendly, but not terribly interesting façade of someone who knows her way around an interview. She is so circumspect that she won’t say what her favorite restaurants are or even what neighborhood she lives in.

Chace Crawford and Ed Westwick in Soho. Photo: Demis Maryannakis/Splash News

“I live in the downtown region,” she said.

Like Soho?

“Gee … I don’t know … ” She smiled.

Leighton, on the other hand, has a mouth as big as her Bette Davis eyes. She willingly shares (okay, overshares), even pointing out the exact building where she lives (we promised not to set up a tent on the stoop, at least not before summer). Her friends say she talks like a sailor, which is evident on the Gossip Girl blooper reel: After finding out her character was not pregnant after a close call, she ad-libbed to her lover, “If I were you, I would have rode me a little harder.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” she told us, hacking into a dad-size veal chop at the Flatiron-district restaurant Lunetta. “I need, like, an edit.”

Leighton will even talk about a subject most starlets consider taboo: boys. She’s loosely entangled with Sebastian Stan, who plays scruffy trust-fund hippie Carter Baizen on the show. They were introduced by Chace, who became best friends with Sebastian in 2006’s forgettable supernatural thriller The Covenant. Leighton and Sebastian were snapped kissing outside of a Halloween party in October, and now he might move in with Chace and Ed. For a girl who claims that she never has a good time on dates, she seems a little smitten. “We still hang out,” she says coyly. “He reminds me of Ray Liotta.” (She’s obsessed with GoodFellas.)

Lest anyone think, after all this dishing, that Leighton is our new BFF, it must be noted that the actress can easily slip back into her role as the Queen of Mean. The first time we met her, at a party at Barneys for Donatella Versace, we nervously approached her and introduced ourselves. At a loss for what to say in the presence of Her Leightness, we complimented her on her dress and asked her what it was.

“Versace,” she hissed. “Duh.”

We learned, in that moment, that it is indeed possible to be both appalled and in love at the same time. And that’s exactly how we feel about her character: She’s bitchy, to be sure, but with wicked comedic timing and a vulnerability that makes you understand how she got so screwed up. Her villain-you-want-to-root-for is the most sophisticated performance on the show.

Coverage of Leighton in the gossip columns has focused on one thing: her relationship with Blake. Blind item! “Which rival young actresses on the same hit show are forced to pose together at PR events, even though they hate each other?” wrote the Daily News. “One resents the other for having knocked her off her ‘star of the show’ pedestal.”

Both girls are quick to deny rumors of animosity. “I was just reading something about, like, how Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson didn’t get along [on the set of The Other Boleyn Girl],” says Leighton. “Why don’t they say that George Clooney and Brad Pitt don’t get along? It’s always the girls.”

Blake does give off a “star of the show” vibe that could inspire pedestal-knocking. Sitting in a swivel chair in the makeup room at Silvercup Studios, as her hairstylist carefully curls, then straightens, her superabundant blonde extensions, Blake is extremely cheerful, but a little edgy. We are informed that photographs are not allowed until she’s in full makeup, despite the fact that she looks great pretty much all the time. “We’ll let you know when we’re ready,” she trills. (“Blake,” we had heard a production assistant saying earlier, “is not laid-back.”)

While we wait, she talks about her career. “The people I look up to do very serious character roles,” she says to the makeup-room mirror. Currently, she’s signed on for a Rebecca Miller–directed ensemble film with Robin Wright Penn. “It’s a really incredible cast,” she says. Plus, she has a kissing scene with Alan Arkin.

“He’s a little bit of an upgrade from Chace and Penn,” she says. “So I’m looking forward to that.”

Harsh, considering that Penn is supposed to be her real-life boyfriend, but Blake doesn’t want to talk about that.

“I thought this was New York Magazine,” she says to us cheerfully, as we withered under the glare of her ultrabright smile. (Caps? Definitely.) “I thought you were supposed to be classy.”

Guess the question about the nose job is off the table.

Reason No. 5 Because there may really be a Gossip Girl.

To our delight, a couple of weeks after the male half of us met with Leighton at Lunetta, an item appeared in “Page Six” about her having an intimate dinner there with a “hot male companion.” How flattering! And how exciting to be part of the real-life gossip that surrounds our favorite show. It would have been the highlight of our month, had we not known that a publicist for the show placed the item, as a favor to the restaurant and as a teaser for the soon-to-return-to-air Gossip Girl. But readers of “Page Six” didn’t know that—all they knew was that Leighton Meester may have been on a date (and that she ate a more masculine meal than her companion—never should have ordered the calamari!).

Leighton Meester, Blake Lively, and Badgley on location at the Met. Photo: Richie Buxo/Splash News

Like any good network trying to push a show, the CW makes sure that its cast shows up on the right red carpets, that the photographers know where to be for the “candid” photo ops, and that its stars’ names show up in the gossip columns as much as possible.

To their credit, the cast is not all wide-eyed innocence about it. “Look, the show that we’re on, it wants us to be celebrities, it’s trying to launch us into the media like a project,” says Penn. “You know. Like a social experiment.” Here’s the experiment: Take a gaggle of sexy, smart young actors and move them en masse to New York City. Give them money, freedom, party invites, free clothes, and everything else a twentysomething could want. Then see how long it takes for them to become tabloid stars. It’s a natural progression from the Hills reality model—getting fans interested in what the actors are up to both onscreen and off.

As fun as it is for the cast (Albert Hammond Jr. knows who they are! And Donatella Versace!), one imagines it must also be frustrating, particularly for those who worry about being painted as the next Shannen Doherty (or Luke Perry). Recently, another item about Leighton ran in the Daily News. Nan Zhang, who plays Blair’s sidekick Kati, was leaving the show. Although the paper reported that Zhang had left to attend Brown University, it also said that Leighton orchestrated her ouster. “She was pushed off the show,” said their source.

It’s this kind of gossip—so oddly on message! The Queen Bee dismisses another minion!—that makes some suspect that the Gossip Girl gossip-mongering is being driven by something more than favor-dropping publicists. That it might be part of a calculated effort by someone higher up, someone whose goal is cultural permeation.

After all, as an editor at one celebrity magazine told us, “promoting a show about gossip with gossip is not the worst idea in the world.”

“Josh Schwartz is definitely the kind of guy who likes to play the puppeteer,” says an online writer who has been on the receiving end of some inside Gossip gossip. “He likes pulling the strings.”

Could the show’s creator be the true Gossip Girl? Now that would certainly be juicy—and practically too meta for words. Schwartz, naturally, denies leaking any information about his cast. “I try to stay away from that kind of stuff,” he says.

Still, the puppeteer comment reminded us of something Chuck, er, Ed, said back at Rose Bar, during a quiet and thoughtful moment between Jack Daniels three and four. “If you think of it like an army, the writers are like the officers and generals in the back room plotting on a map, saying, ‘Put the soldiers here,’ ” Ed had said. “The soldiers on the front lines are the actors, you know? And they will be the ones that take the heat and take the impact of the enemy.”

We weren’t quite sure who the enemy was, but we rolled with the analogy. Yeah, we said, but you could also win the battle. “That’s right,” he said slowly, his face breaking out into a Chuck-like grin. “We do win,” he yelled. “We win money and sex!”

Reason No. 6 Because, against all odds, it offers profound social commentary.

Gossip Girl is the New Yorkiest television show since Sex and the City, which is why on our blog we make a parlor game of rating its reality quotient: Plus six points for Blair’s bitchy mom telling her, “Before you tuck into that [croissant], you might find the low-fat yogurt more appealing.” Minus four points for warping New York into UpperEastVillageDumboBillyburgistan—a place where you can travel from Brooklyn to the Palace Hotel on the Upper East Side (it’s really in midtown) in 10 minutes, by van.

On balance, Gossip Girl gets the world of privileged New York City kids pretty right. The characters may be caricatures, but they recall real types enough to make you cringe: The mothers who want to shape and clothe (and then humiliate) their daughters. The gay father, the hipster Brooklyn father, the dad with the coke problem. And the kids who fall in love, have sex, smoke pot, and try to fight out their places in the social hierarchy. It’s accurate enough to have real-life parents in a tizzy and private-school principals lecturing students about why they shouldn’t watch.

In fact, the show has resurrected the potential for scripted dramas to be effective social satire—to present a world more accurately than a “reality” program can. Gossip Girl presents a wealth-eye view of the city, but because it is a cartoon we can laugh along with the conspicuousness of the consumption. Living among the wealthy in New York is an experience of queasy ambivalence—we find their antics both mesmerizing and icky. But on Gossip Girl, we do not have to judge them, or ourselves. The show mocks our superficial fantasies while satisfying them, allowing us to partake in the over-the-top pleasures of the irresponsible superrich without anxiety or guilt or moralizing. It’s class warfare as blood sport. And, as Blair Waldorf might say, that’s entertainment.

Photo: Photographs: Bottom, Shawn Ehlers/Wireimage (Westwick); Rob Loud/Getty Images (Momsen); Jordan Strauss/Wireimage (Badgley); James Devaney/Wireimage (Lively); Ryan Born/Wireimage (Meester); Kevin Parry/Wireimage (Crawford); Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images (Paolo); Neilson Barnard/Getty Images (Szohr); Ryan Miller/Getty Images (Stan); Greg Deguire/Wireimage (Brody); Jon Kopaloff/Filmmagic (Underwood); Frazer Harrison/Getty Images (Chasez)

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The Genius of Gossip Girl