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...

Idiot Box: Why Chuck Fell Apart

Last week's episode of Chuck dropped to a 1.3 in the ratings, a series low.  Since that would appear to be the last nail in the Chuck coffin (barring a miracle or the WB agreeing to sell the rights to NBC at a reduced rate for the sake of reaching the syndication point), I thought I'd take a look back at the show and figure out what exactly went wrong.



Chuck premiered on September 24th, 2007 to over 9 million viewers and what would have been around a 3.8 in the 18-49 year old demographic that networks count.  For what it's worth, a rating like that now would make Chuck NBC's highest rated show, and even a highly rated show outside of the shallow pool that is NBC.

As with most shows, Chuck's ratings dropped after the premiere, but never ventured into the danger zone.  In fact, the first season averaged 8.68 million viewers, a perfectly acceptable number, particularly given the fact that the first season was cut short by the writers' strike.

To give you an idea how of far Chuck has fallen, last week's episode reigned in 4.1 million viewers, less than half of its average from the first season.

So what happened?

Timing

For those who know anything about this show, "timing" would seem to be an obvious answer, if not an obvious excuse, although it would be wrong to place that blame entirely on NBC.

Watch Chuck or Sarah will shoot you.
Obviously, the writers' strike that derailed the first season didn't help matters.  While the show got a typical half season order of 13 episodes in, the finale didn't pack much of a punch.  It also aired in January, which isn't exactly a hot bed of television activity.

Because the season ended after only 13 episodes, the show never dealt with many stories of substance.  The episodes consisted mostly of secret identity issues and Chuck pining away for Sarah, although it was all done very well.  Each episode was funny, relatively self-contained, and at times even moving.  The chemistry between the core cast members was on display from the start.  We also got just enough information that everything made sense, yet not so much that we didn't want more.

The only problem is that the show never got to a point where it seemed like something real was at stake.  This is completely understandable after half a season, but made the show feel less substantial than it really was.  I think, to many people, it was easy to dismiss.

It's not entirely surprising, then, that the second season of Chuck (which premiered in September of 2008, 9 months after it had gone off the air) had less than 7 million viewers.  The ratings were all over the charts for season two, but it eventually clocked an average audience of 7.36 million, about 1.3 million fewer than season one.  And while that was good for something like a 2.7 average (which it would kill for now), the finale clocked in at closer to an 1.8 -- not a good sign.

What's truly frightening about the ratings trend that developed is that season two was easily the best single season Chuck ever had.  The show had been renewed for an entire season well in advance of filming.  The creators knew they had 22 episodes to produce and planned accordingly.  They planned it out so much, in fact, that they ended it on a cliffhanger, as they assumed they would return for a third season.

Each episode of Chuck from season two (more or less) built upon the mythos of the show.  The spy world was fleshed out, but so was Chuck's family life.  Mysteries were introduced, new and old characters showed up at unexpected times, and we actually got plot twists -- all while Chuck and Sarah grew ever closer.

I was never more excited about the show than I was after season two, which made the fact that it's renewal was in doubt all the more frustrating.  This is where timing would, yet again, get the best of this show.

NBC eventually decided to renew Chuck, but they only picked it up for 13 episodes.  In many ways we were back to season one, with the show forced to try to walk that fine line between continuity heavy episodes that its core audience loved and self-contained episodes that could possibly bring in new viewers, all in just 13 episodes.

Season three of Chuck premiered on January 10th, 2010 and scored a 3.0, a huge jump from the season two finale and a rather ridiculous bump for NBC's overall ratings.  While the ratings crept slowly downward after the premiere, the show was still above a 2.5 six episodes in, so NBC -- who were desperate for ratings (and still are) -- decided to order 6 more episodes, bringing the season 3 order up to 19.

The problem, of course, is that the show had already been planned out for 13 episodes, so the additional six were going to be like a new season.  Even more unfortunate is the fact that the first 13 episodes felt like it was created by people who weren't entirely sure if these 13 episodes were the end of something or the beginning; it was completely unfocused.

Season three did just barely well enough for NBC to renew it, yet again for only half a season, lead it to the same difficulties in season four that were found in season three.  And when the show debuted with a 2.5, NBC did exactly what it did earlier; picked up the show for a full season even though it had been plotted out as half a season.  And, again, it was obvious that the show had not been put together in a cohesive manner.



NBC's

But all of the blame can't be placed on the network.  No, some of the blame falls at the feet of the show itself, at the drop in quality that has been so evident since the end of season two.

Manufacturing

The end of season two changed the core dynamics of the show.  First, there was the fact that Chuck and Sarah had, at the very least, made their feelings for each other known.  And then there was the Intersect 2.0.

I know that, at the time, Chuck's upgrade was a point of contention for many people.  The problem was that Chuck was no longer a fish out of water, but the ultimate weapon.  Personally, I have really enjoyed Chuck having 2.0 in his head, but I think it was a difficult adjustment for the writers to make, one that didn't always work out.

In fact, the most fertile ground after Chuck's upgrade was the issue of what the Intersect 2.0 was going to do to Chuck's brain.  But the issue was never addressed until the second episode orders, which shoved a potentially overarching story into just 6 episodes so that it was never covered as thoroughly -- or as effectively -- as it could have been.

With Chuck suddenly becoming a full fledged spy, the writers had to find a new source of drama, and they decided to focus on the relationship between Chuck and Sarah, a relationship that had, up until this point, felt very natural.  And then we met Shaw.

Clearly, two people with chemistry...or not.
Honestly, I liked Shaw.  We never learned much about him and he lacked any kind of chemistry with anyone in the cast, but that was fine with me, for the most part.  As a spy, and later a villain, he was great.  But they ruined him by making him a complication in the Chuck/Sarah relationship.

This was problematic on a number of level.  First of all, Shaw and Sarah had no chemistry, and we were constantly being told about how they were together as opposed to ever seeing it.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it was unnecessary.  The fact that Chuck had decided to become a spy even against Sarah's wishes was more than enough reason to keep the two of them apart.  It was a huge issue that was going to cause problems between them ; there was no need for anything else to happen.

And yet we got Shaw.  And the we got Hannah, who was almost as ridiculous, given that the number one rule of the show up until this point was that Chuck couldn't date a civilian, but for some reason it was now okay...because Sarah was dating Shaw, evidently.

The relationship drama was forced and heavy handed and it was particularly frustrating given that it could have been left out completely and nothing about the third season would have changed.

Timing and Manufacturing

Season four has, in many ways, been a combination of all the things that have gone wrong with this show.  Yet again, Chuck got an order of only 13 episodes, 13 episodes that could end up being the series' last.  So over the course of those 13 episodes we were introduced to the proposal storyline.

"You're very nice, but totally unnecessary."
Part of my issue with the proposal storyline is that we got only 6 episodes in season three of Chuck and Sarah being together, and then only three in season four before the proposal comes up.  In other words, they had been together for less than half a season and already they were talking about getting married.  It was way too quick and, even worse, became the focal point for the show.  As if to replace the "will they/won't they" question that had now been answered, they found another "will they/won't they" question one which, frankly, had significantly less impact.  And, again, it was forced.

Again, we saw the balance of the show shift.  Whereas season three had fought to regain some semblance of the balance the show had before Chuck got his upgrade, any steps season three had finally taken to right the ship were thrown out the window.  All focus was place on Chuck and Sarah, with minor storylines going on around them.  The plot of every episode was built so that it connected to something Chuck and Sarah were going through, and often times that construction was heavy handed and flimsy.

Then Chuck got picked up for an additional 11 episodes, and it was clear that the creators weren't prepared for more episodes.  The initial episodes after the original finale seemed hastily thrown together, with ridiculous plots that pushed suspension of disbelief well beyond its breaking point.  We saw a random and, at the time, rather bad plot point from the first set of episodes brought back, and while they've managed to make it work so far, it's underscored how awful it was to begin with (yes, I'm referring to the computer).

Now we have three episodes left, and from all appearances those three episodes are going to be packed to the gills with story.  The last three episodes sound like they're going to be urgent, something Chuck has missed for some time now.

Season Five?

The final episode of season four is called "Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger," and given what we got at the end of season two, I have no doubts that the creators mean what they say.  For those of us who have spent four years following this show, one more season seems pretty essential.

The fact that Fox renewed Fringe for an entire season even though its ratings were, at the time, lower than Chuck's is a little bit encouraging, particularly given that Fox operates with higher ratings standards than NBC.  But the real glimmer of hope has to come with the fact that Chuck is, at most, just ten episodes shy of the threshold for syndication.

From a creative standpoint, I feel like the fewer episodes, the better.  Ten episode will get them to the syndication point, and ten episodes might be about right.  Give us ten episodes filled with suspense, adventure, humor, drama, and romance.  Give us ten episodes that I can't predict based upon the "next time on."  Give us ten episodes where the stakes are high and emotions run wild.  Give us ten episodes that culminates 4+ years of television.

And then let the show rest, as I think it's probably about that time.