The Metafictional Genius of Gossip Girl

I've never been ashamed of my enjoyment of Gossip Girl, and I say this as a 37 year old married man who, in the eyes of most, should be ashamed.  I generally ignore those people rather than try to explain to them exactly why I like the show, and why it's more than it may seem to be.

I started watching Gossip Girl because it was produced by Josh Schwartz, the guy who created The OC, which I would guess most people would probably frown upon as well.  He also co-created one of my favorite television shows ever, Chuck, which happened to premiere the same season as Gossip Girl.

The initial appeal of the show for me was pretty simple: outcast high school kid who finally gets to meet the girl of his dreams, the queen of the popular girls, who has returned to school from a year away a changed person.  It is the classic story of the outsider getting the girl.  Oh, and the outsider, Dan, happened to be an aspiring writer who lived with his dad and sister in a loft in Brooklyn.  And just for good measure, the girl of his dreams was crazy hot.

Clearly, there was a certain level of wish fulfillment going on there (I should probably mention that Dan wouldn't have much trouble standing out in a crowd, either, at least in the real world).  I mean, a few weeks into the show Dan has a short story published in the New Yorker, for crying out loud.

As with any show like this, I had to put up with a lot that wasn't for me.  Nearly every scene involving Blair and Chuck was hard for me to watch.  I understood, though, that this was a huge part of the show, and that there was a very vocal segment of the audience who wanted to see it.

So if the wish fulfillment aspect of the show was balanced out by the over the top teen soap opera elements of the show, what was it that kept me watching?  If those two elements negated each other, what made me go back to it week after week?

That's simple: the writers were sneaky geniuses.

Josh Schwartz throws some self-awareness into most of his shows.  But unlike The OC or Chuck, the entire premise of Gossip Girl was based upon metafiction.  It's a show chronicling the lives of a handful of high school students who are dealing with the fact that the mysterious Gossip Girl is chronicling their lives.  To a certain extent, the audience is Gossip Girl.

But wait, there's more.

When season 4 ended, 4/5's of what would be the main cast were on the verge of achieving their goals.  Chuck was fully submerged in the business world.  Blair was on her way to becoming a princess.  Serena was headed to Hollywood to work in the movies.  And the manuscript of Dan's first book was in the hands of a major publisher.

That just left Nate, the pretty boy who didn't seem to really do much on the show.  And yet Nate was about to take the metafictional elements of the show to the next level.

In season 5, Nate takes over the NY Spectator, a newspaper that seemed to specialize in TMZ style reporting.  Nate was now actively reporting on the world he lived in, ostensibly creating the stories that would end up in his own paper.  To take it a step further, he eventually hires Serena to blog about her life for the newspaper.  The characters were now making a living basically doing what Gossip Girl had been doing all those years, but now they had control of the information, or at least believed they did.  They were maintaining the story they had for years claimed they wanted no part of, and they were doing it to keep themselves -- and, by extension, the show -- going.

Season 5 also featured the Gossip Girl moving from whoever the original mysterious blogger was to Georgina, who eventually passed it along to Serena, adding yet another layer to all this post-modernism.  This just isn't the kind of thing you expect to find on a network television show.

And then we got the kicker.

Yep, this dude.
In the season finale, we find out that Dan was Gossip Girl all along.  And just like that, my enjoyment of this show increased tenfold.

Dan wrote himself into the story on Gossip Girl and in turn wrote himself into the story in real life.  How many writers would kill to be able to write something and actually make that thing come true just by writing it?  Now it had become a show chronicling the lives of a handful of people whose lives were being chronicled by one of their own.  If Gossip Girl was the audience and Dan was the POV character in that first season, suddenly the two met and it came full circle.

There have been some complaints about the revelation that Dan was Gossip Girl.  I know there are those who think there have been instances over the course of the show here it could not have been Dan sending out those e-mail blasts.  These instances can easily be explained if you consider that Jenny knew what Dan was doing the whole time, and most likely posted some gossip herself.  It also not unreasonable to think that Dan at some point had an automated system set up to forward e-mails out to his followers.

What people seem to be missing is that Gossip Girl/Dan never created or found the information that he sent out.  It already existed.  So if Dan got a tip about something, his choices were either to sit on it while it came out anyway, or release it himself and maintain the level of credibility Gossip Girl had among his followers.  Everything he sent out was going to come out one way or the other.

I'm not sure that the writers intended for Dan to be Gossip Girl from the start, but upon re-watching the show, I've come across some wonderful character moments for Dan that were ostensibly hidden up to the finale.  On numerous occasions, Dan finds himself in a position where he either has to keep a secret he doesn't want to keep or he wants to say something to someone that he doesn't say because he's worried about hurting them -- or looking bad.

So instead of doing it "himself," Dan uses Gossip Girl to say and do the things he can't or won't.   It's actually pretty unbelievable to see and, again, it's something of a dream for any writer to have that kind of power.  Serena says in the finale that Dan was pulling everyone strings the whole time, and she's not exaggerating.  There are moments in every season where Dan determines how the show goes based upon something he does as Gossip Girl.

What's interesting is that the clues were there, perhaps no so more than when Dan's first book, "Inside," is published.  The book is a fictionalized version of his life (not unusual for most writers) in which he writes a book about them and it then ostracized for what he wrote.  And, lo and behold, that's exactly what happens on the show.  So at this point, he's created and ran Gossip Girl to become a part of high society, then turned that high society into a book in which his analog writes a book about the same high society -- and it sells tons of copies, almost exclusively to the same, aforementioned high society.

Has anyone not from Krypton had so much power in a story?

And let's not forget that Dan's initial literary success came with the publication of a short story he wrote about the first time he saw Serena, something that played a huge role in his creation of Gossip Girl.

I suppose the argument could be made that the writers weren't aware of what they were doing, but that would be a flimsy argument at best.  I have no doubt that Dan as Gossip Girl didn't become a concrete story line until the show had already cover a few seasons.  In fact, I think it's obvious that they decided upon Dan by the start of season 5 at the latest.  It is, after all, the season when Gossip Girl chooses to stop posting.  Turning over the reigns to Georgina (and then Serena) allowed them to take advantage of Gossip Girl's seeming omnipotence in ways that would have been impossible to reconcile with Dan.

By the time the sixth and final season rolls around, Dan has reclaimed his role as Gossip Girl, but his real and fictional lives have become far too interconnected for their to be much separation.  His scathing articles on each member of the show alienate him from everyone, but they're the very real combination of the Dan Humphry and Gossip Girl aesthetics, finally let loose on the world.

Which, in the end, is the underlying theme of the show: the power of words -- and, specifically and ironically, the power of the written word.

Over the course of six seasons of the show, each cast member did horrible, horrible things to each other.  Of the group of them, Dan's actions were, if not the least deplorable, then pretty close to the bottom of the list.  Yet both the characters and, it seems, the audience turned on him when his tell all articles were released, turned on him in a way that no other character had been treated.

When the big reveal comes, the rest of the cast has no choice but to accept their roles and realize that, to a certain extent, they created Gossip Girl just as much as Dan did.  They also made Gossip Girl necessary.  I will fully admit that they could have spent more time explaining this, particularly given how quickly Serena seems to forgive Dan for pretty much everything he's ever done.

In the end, Dan had all the power, which is saying a lot, considering who he was up against.  For those of us who write, seeing such power come from a few words was stunning.

Thanks, Gossip Girl, for making me think, for entertaining me, and for dangling an impossible carrot in front of my nose; it's made me work harder.

*PS As much as I enjoyed the flirtation between Dan and Blair, in the end I don't think they worked like I thought they would, and much preferred Dan and Serena.  Plus, you know, wish fulfillment and all...