Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl blasted onto the pop culture radar last year — soapy and outrageous. Taking everything deliciously over the top, it was a satisfying guilty pleasure. But with its second season, which began 1 September, suddenly almost everyone wants to play nice.

Gossip Girl burned through so much scandal in its first season (drug abuse, teen pregnancy, outing, class warfare, depression) that it will be hard for the new season’s storylines to shock without veering into complete absurdity. But with the pressure on to maintain the previous finely tuned blend of camp and seriousness, the new episodes seem mostly to recycle teen soap clichés.

All the accoutrements of the ultra rich — perfectly designed houses, cutting-edge designer wardrobes, club memberships, access to the hippest nightspots — show up again this season in a dreamily idealized consumerist fantasy. Though Vitamin Water’s sponsorship of a Hamptons bash is not unlikely, the number of times the brand name is uttered by guests is tedious and then some.

Other products placed I the season premiere included New York socialite Tinsley Mortimer and ’80s New York chronicler Jay McInerney, cast as Dan’s summer internship boss summer. An alcoholic writer who challenges Dan to get over his writer’s block, he appeared for this one episode only, a cheap-seeming gimmick that only distracted from what the show does best: Upper East Side lifestyle porn.

The premiere, set in the Hamptons, had everyone revealing what he or she did over summer vacation. Reformed bad girl Serena (Blake Lively) was moping beautifully on the beach, pining for Dan (Penn Badgley). It appears that last season’s success wooing Serena unleashed his inner playa, and so he was trying to forget her by dating everyone else. The clumsy machinations that brought these mooning lovebirds back together in the season premiere revealed just how blunted Gossip Girl’s claws have become.

Spending time with Serena and Dan also reminded us that they were never as interesting as Chuck Bass Ed Westwick) and Blair (Leighton Meester). While Dan and Serena’s problems stem predictably from the fact that they come from different social strata, Chuck and Blair are two sides of the same coin. Uber-rich, spoiled, and ruthless, they generated the only real sparks of the premiere, including her declaration that he was “a Basshole.”

True, the episode threatened to jump the shark when it was revealed that James (Patrick Heusinger), the unsuspecting man Blair corralled to play of the part of her wonderful new boyfriend, had his own secret, ludicrous even by Gossip Girl standards. But in the coming episodes, Blair and Chuck retain their place as the series’ most exciting kids in turmoil, its salacious center.

After the crew leaves the Hamptons for their Upper East Side home turf, the show returns to the first season’s basic parameters. The writing gets sharper, the scandals spicier, especially when Blair forms an unholy alliance with the “older woman” Catherine (Madchen Amick), who is Nate’s (Chace Crawford) new paramour. The show also makes better use of its central conceit when young fans of Gossip Girl’s blog confront Dan and Serena with strong opinions about how their relationship should proceed.

Still, the first three episodes don’t fulfill the promise of the season’s advertising — that the show is “every parent’s nightmare,” which is the reason you should tune in. Nate’s steamy affair with Catherine is certainly melodramatic (and so, probably alarming for someone’s parents), especially as the ramifications of his father’s crimes last season come to bear on the relationship. Dan and Serena, however, bog the show down with their dreary self-seriousness.

These dynamics perfectly mirror the rise and fall of Gossip Girl creator Josh Schwartz’s former show, The OC. Dan and Serena are like The OC’s Ryan and Marissa, who swiftly became the series’ least interesting aspect as they stumbled through break-ups and make-ups, while supporting characters grabbed viewers’ attention. If Schwartz isn’t careful, Gossip Girl could follow The OC’s arc: a first-year sizzling phenom that quickly flames out.

RATING 6 / 10