High-school rivalry

It’s easy to lump Gossip Girl, last year’s hot-as-hell teen drama, in with 90210, this year’s (and also 1990’s) hot-as-hell teen drama. They both portray the highest of high society, chronicling hopelessly rich prep-school kids and their mostly horrid parents. Having never had to deal with mundane struggles like how to find money for school clothes or junior’s first car, the characters pass the time with overly dramatic soap-opera clichés and backstabbing as a form of foreplay.

Both shows give us an entrée into this exclusive world in the form of one poor family— a middling ex-rock star and his two adorable children in Gossip Girl, and a sensitive-but-firm principle and his two adorable children in 90210. You see what I’m getting at.

The similarities end with the setup, though, and the differences are illustrative of how subtle variations in tone can mean the difference between a melodramatic primetime mess and light (really light) cultural critique.

I won’t bother much with 90210 — which, despite pretensions toward fun things like irony, is proving to be a middling soap opera — other than to say having Jennie Garth and the old dude from the Peach Pit back as satellite characters points to a deeper rooting in the cattiness of ’90s melodrama.

Gossip Girl, which entered its second season September 1, has the drama, but (usually) lightens the melo- by undercutting its more indulgent moments and by crafting real-ish characters. In lesser teen dramas, the young characters act like their parents for the same reasons as their parents. In Gossip Girl, we get a sense of internal conflict. These kids might be behaving badly, but they’re usually acting out against their parents. The exception is Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), who is very much the mirror of her mother. The show takes pains, though, to suggest she does so because she cannot or hasn’t yet escaped from the woman’s shadow.

Gossip Girl is good at taking the various arche- (or perhaps stereo-) types of adolescence and making them grandiose, huge, opulent and ridiculous. Then, it points out the absurdity of the opulence and ridiculousness — sometimes in ways as subtle as adding a Chaplin-esque musical score to point out the inherent cartoonishness of onscreen events. And, when the show’s at its absolute best, Gossip Girl goes one step further, suggesting it isn’t just the wealth and leisure that makes these kids absurd, but their actions. Their sheer teen-ish-ness is as preposterous as their bankrolls.

The ridiculousness of the teen years is something that everyone — even teens — feels on a deep level, and the way Gossip Girl deals with that is too smart for the genre. Gossip Girl isn’t a guilty pleasure, then. It’s just a pleasure.


Survivor: Gabon New tropical locale, same crazy people doing similar feats of strength, logic, and backstabbing for the same prize.
(CBS, premiers Thursday, 7pm)

Dexter / Californication If there’s ever been a better night or network for lovers of high-functioning narcissists and sociopaths, we can’t think of one. Dexter welcomes Jimmy Smits as a guest star. Meanwhile Californication’s Hank Moody (David Duchovny) is still self-medicating and self-destructing.
(Showtime, premiers Sunday, 8pm & 9pm)

Pushing Daisies One of my favorite new shows last year, the whimsically subversive Pushing Daisies was tragically strike-shortened (airing only 9 of 22 episodes).
It’s back. (ABC, Wednesday, 7pm)

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