‘Chuck’ Versus ‘Gossip Girl’

One of the few upside to NBC’s Fall 2009 scheduling debacle — a perfect storm resulting from the weak ratings of most of their shows combined with the utter disaster of the Jay Leno prime time experiment — has been the somewhat early return of Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak’s comic spy series, Chuck. Although as recently as last spring the series was at risk of cancellation due to of the gutting of the NBC schedule necessitated to clear room for Leno, it has proven one of the few shows on the network with a dedicated fanbase.

Not only did Chuck return earlier than originally intended, it received an order for an additional six episodes on top of the 13 that were originally requested. Meanwhile, on the CW, the other series created by Josh Schwartz (with co-creator Stephanie Savage) that debuted in the fall of 2007, Gossip Girl, has continued to plug along with a degree of buzz incommensurate with either its critical acclaim or its low ratings.

Both shows were created in the wake of the demise of Schwartz’s FOX series The O.C. That trendy series enjoyed considerable initial success, only to hemorrhage viewers in a Season Three that has to be accounted one of the worst of any popular show in recent years. Even though The O.C. rebounded aesthetically in Season Four (as a viewer of the show I will confess the final season to be my favorite), viewers did not return and FOX canceled the series without giving it a full order of episodes.

Gossip Girl and Chuck both bear a sharp resemblance to The O.C., despite paradoxically bearing little resemblance to one another. Chuck embodies the geekier parts of The O.C. Chuck Bartowski, in fact, pretty much is The O.C.’s Seth Cohen (not only has Rachel Bilson played love interests for both Chuck and Seth, but there were rumors that the actor who played Seth, Adam Brody, was initially approached to play the role of Chuck), with the same obsession with comic books and SF movies.

Frankly, my favorite parts of The O.C. involved some combination of Seth, his girlfriend Summer, and unrestrained geekiness. Such as The Seth Cohen Starter Set (dual sets of geeky pop cultural goodies given one Chrismukkuh — a Jewish-Christian holiday invented by the bi-religious Seth — to both Summer and another female competing for his affections, a set that consisted of the DVD of The Goonies, the graphic novel Watchmen, Michael Chabon’s novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and a Death Cab for Cutie CD.

Or when Summer dressed up as Wonder Woman to surprise Seth. Or Summer inviting a group of homeless people to Seth’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, where he offers to entertain them by showing Season One of Battlestar Galactica.

Gossip Girl, on the other hand, evokes the internecine social battles of The O.C., with teen princes and princesses battling for social ascendency. One of the main subtexts of both Gossip Girl and The O.C. is the struggle of those from a lower social caste to gain acceptance by a higher one, whether Dan and Jenny in Gossip Girl or Ryan in The O.C. Essentially Gossip Girl is The O.C. without the fun geeky pop cultural references.

The O.C. had many downsides. For one thing, it never broke the habit of introducing utterly repulsive and unlikable characters. Who can forget Oliver? Or Johnny the surfer? Or Dean Hess? Or Volchok? Or, for that matter, Marissa, who was tough to enjoy even at the best of times and nearly impossible to tolerate in the many dramas of self-destruction that came more and more to dominate her character?

While both shows resemble their parent, they do so in different ways. Chuck encapsulates the cool, hip, geeky side of The O.C., along with all of the many pop cultural references that was one of its greatest virtues. Emblematic of this is the music. Although Gossip Girl makes gestures at good music – even having Sonic Youth appear in a guest spot – the soundtrack has been generally nondescript.

The O.C., on the other hand, brought new levels of cool to TV soundtracks, one of the first series to feature songs as edgy as those in contemporary films. The show even promoted the careers of some bands; Seth Cohen’s frequent praise of Death Cab for Cutie did more to make the band a major label success than did radio or DVD sales. In one argument Seth passionately exclaims, “Hey, do not insult Death Cab!”

A significant number of the best bands of the decade contributed to the show’s soundtrack, including Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Super Furry Animals, A.C. Newman, Of Montreal, and others; Modest Mouse even played live on one episode. Musically, Chuck is very much its parent’s offspring, routinely employing the music of bands like Spoon, the New Pornographers, the National, and Frightened Rabbit. Gossip Girl‘s highpoint, on the other hand, is Lady GaGa.

It must be admitted that Chuck has an initially off-putting premise, one that many people are not capable of getting past (though Gossip Girl‘s is equally silly, much of the story being driven by an anonymous blogger who maintains a website about a bunch of people no one in the real would could possible care about — though few seem to ask precisely who Gossip Girl is, though clearly it has to be someone inside the group). The notion that the entire contents of the CIA database could be downloaded into a single human brain is absurd, but if a viewer is willing to suspend their disbelief for a bit, the show will repay the gesture. Fans, in fact, never really think about the premise after the show proceeds.

Superficially a spy thriller, Chuck is in reality a romantic comedy. It helps that the cast features so many superb comic actors. Zachary Levi is perfectly cast as Chuck, the ideal blend of someone who you can accept knowing Klingon while having the looks of a geeky Cary Grant. Aussie Yvonne Strahovski isn’t asked to carry the comic load, but her great beauty, intelligence, athleticism, and charm make her perfect as Chuck’s love interest. Adam Baldwin, who was hysterical on Firefly as the amoral but endearing mercenary Jayne Cobb, pretty much repeats that role here as NSA agent John Casey.

Another strength of the show is a deep cast of supporting actors, with special mention of Ryan McPartlin as Dr. Devon Woodcomb aka Captain Awesome, Chuck’s brother-in-law. His character was originally intended to be temporary, but he did indeed turn out to be so awesome that he is now a permanent member of the cast.

At the heart of Chuck has been the paradox of Chuck and Sarah genuinely loving one another yet being forced to keep their involvement platonic, while sometimes posing as boyfriend and girlfriend in order to provide a plausible cover story for their constant interaction. The public relationship is often a sham, but the love is not.

The cast of Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl inherits three things from The O.C.: 1) Warfare concerning social status, 2) A focus on both teen and adult relationships (though adult relationships have played a significantly lessened role in Season Three), and 3) An obsession with the signs of social standing. There is, however, one new wrinkle in Gossip Girl that it has in common with neither its parent nor sibling show, or for that matter, its own first season: story arcs of ever decreasing length.

Both Chuck and The O.C. generally had stories that continued for significant periods of time. The question of whether Ryan and Marissa on The O.C. would be a couple was answered gradually over three years. They had some rough patches — eventually fatally so — but even when they were not an official couple, they still had a relationship that provided narrative continuity throughout the show.

Meanwhile, Seth and Summer were more or less together for all four seasons, even marrying in the final episode’s flash-forward. In Chuck, Sarah and Chuck have remained linked by a very real love despite the logistical difficulties complicating their relationship. In Season One of Gossip Girl, most of the story arcs — whether romantic or otherwise — were developed over many episodes, even as much as an entire season. To take merely one example, the arc detailing the illegal activities of Nate’s father in Season One was developed only very gradually, over the course of many episodes. Dan and Serena’s relationship developed very slowly, extending through the entire first and much of the second season.

Gossip Girl has in Seasons Two and Three lost narrative direction. There are stories, but they have gotten shorter and shorter. While Nate and Blair lasted as a couple much of Season One, in Season Two and Three Nate has gone through a string of relationships, most lasting no more than three or four episodes.

The same holds true of Serena and Dan. Keeping in mind that their own relationship has gone through several changes, the number of attachments the two have gone through cannot be counted on the fingers of both hands. For a show that is supposed to be a serial drama, this comes perilously close to devolving into an episodic drama. Each each episode may juggle three or four story arcs, while at the same time resolving at least one of them. There is little ongoing narrative continuity, however, apart from the semi-stable relationship between Chuck and Blair, a relationship that is unlikely to continue much longer.

I believe — at least I hope — that the producers and writers on Gossip Girl will realize that this segmentation of the narrative to be a mistake. I believe that core fans of the show would prefer for relationships to last long enough to enable some degree of emotional investment. I believe that most would prefer to watch a relationship to deepen and evolve for more than four episodes.

Either the producers or the network (and all networks vastly prefer the episodic format to the serial, their belief being that episodic television is better at attracting new viewers, since no real knowledge of the back story is required) have decided that the target audience of Gossip Girl suffers from attention deficit disorder and will not or cannot absorb long story arcs. Gossip Girl has become ADHD TV. Ultimately, I believe that this is what has made Gossip Girl less and less satisfying as television drama. It’s certainly one of the reasons that it has been less interesting than Chuck.

At this stage in each show’s development, I remain a huge fan of Chuck. Season Three has been every bit as enjoyable as the first two and with Chuck becoming a full-fledged spy new twists have developed. The surreally cute Kristin Kreuk has given the show a recent boost (not that it needed one) as a love interest for Chuck while Brandon Routh has become a person of interest for Sarah (he also provided a nice in-joke when Chuck, looking at him with Sarah on a monitor, quips that he was OK if you liked supermen). Gossip Girl, on the other hand, has ceased to provide me with any joy. I watch it out of habit, but with each disappointing episode I ask myself if that episode will be the last.

Chuck versus Gossip Girl? Chuck. Definitely Chuck.

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