The transition to college has always been particularly treacherous territory for teen shows. High school is such fertile ground to mine for drama, full as it is of angst and social hierarchy and romantic growing pains. High school is awful and wonderful in ways that are essentially universal. But college is different. College is where the common experiences of growing up start to diverge. College cultivates individualism instead of squashing it. College is fun, which is good for real life, but rarely as the setting for a one-hour drama.
Interestingly, Gossip Girl, which just wrapped up its fall season, seems to be navigating the waters better than many of its predecessors. Which is to say that the shift to college life hasn’t had much of an impact at all so far. This isn’t necessarily a compliment, because Gossip Girl was never really a show about high school to begin with. It’s about sex, fashion, scheming and beautiful people being young and rich in New York. Occasionally there had been a storyline revolving around college visits or an affair with a teacher (I’m fairly certain there’s never been a scene set in an actual classroom), but the show has rarely delved far enough into the inner lives of its characters for them to demonstrate any real emotional evolution or coming of age. Where the beautiful people spend their time — high school, college campuses, penthouse apartments, coffee shops — doesn’t really matter. It’s all just window dressing anyway.
In a recent fit of nostalgia, I’ve been re-watching the first season of Felicity, a very different show about college students living and loving in New York City. Felicity was one of my favorite shows when it aired on the now-defunct WB Network in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The first season still holds up as a warm, funny exploration of college life. It’s also a jarring contrast to the constantly shifting loyalties and casual sex that define Gossip Girl. Felicity and her friends lived in an entirely different Manhattan than the one where Serena Van der Woodsen and co. hang their couture chapeaus. The characters in Felicity were earnest and serious. They often moved in slow motion through a Sarah McLachlan-drenched landscape. They wore lots of sweaters. Relationships evolved leisurely and life-changing decisions were conveyed in small, quiet moments. The show managed to stretch the love triangle at the center of the show over four seasons. Sex was a VERY BIG DEAL.
On Gossip Girl, a love triangle rarely lasts beyond a two or three episode arc before characters and plotlines are thrown up in the air and reshuffled. The obvious problem with that is that virtually none of the relationships — whether it’s an affair with a pre-adolescent looking congressman or an overhyped yet painfully unsexy threesome — have any weight or substance to them. Nothing is ever really at stake, so there’s nothing to become invested in.
The show is particularly frustrating because, unlike a lot of other teen soaps, it’s always shown the potential to be smarter and more involving than it actually is. There are flashes of snarky brilliance, particularly when it’s satirizing the cutthroat machinations of Upper East Side society. The writers also hit on a gold mine with the romance between society queen Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and adolescent lothario Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick). The actors bring a mix of ruthlessness and vulnerability to the roles that transcends the show’s glossy veneer, and Blair’s transition from to high school empress to freshman nobody at NYU has been the most engaging storylines of the new season.
But more often than not, Gossip Girl exists in an emotional vacuum where characters hook up and break up and storylines appear out of thin air and just as quickly disappear without leaving any impact. Ultimately, why should we care if Dan becomes a famous writer and wins the love of his childhood friend, if Chuck ever moves out of his father’s shadow or continues brooding and chatting with the ghost of Bart Bass, if Serena ever finds herself? (I’d be satisfied if she ever managed to find an outfit that harnesses her cleavage).
Will I keep following Gossip Girl when it returns next year? Probably. Even though I’ve sworn off it many times, every week it pops up on my TiVo and every week I watch it. It’s the very definition of a guilty pleasure. But at this point I’ve given up any hope that its characters will ever really grow up.