Tuesday, January 1, 2013

XOXO 4 Ever: Ben & Kiel Say Goodbye to Gossip Girl Pt. 1

Gossip Girl was a television series that ran on The CW for six years, finishing up last month. It was primarily aimed at the female demographic, specifically young women.

Ben Morse and Kiel Phegley are grown men.

Here, they discuss the show, the finale and more.

Ben: Before we get into the finale itself, let’s do a brief history lesson. I have watched Gossip Girl from the beginning, and I believe my co-writer here did as well. I got hooked by borrowing the pilot episode from Mel Caylo when we were back at Wizard and watching it with Megan; we both liked it a lot. It was funny how Mel got sent such a random assortment of pilots given that we were ostensibly a comic book magazine; we got stuff like the failed Aquaman show Mercy Reef and the failed Ultra show…Ultra (based on the Luna Brothers book) but then we’d also get stuff like Dirty Sexy Money, Big Shots and Gossip Girl. The super hero stuff or the really schlocky stuff we’d all watch together in the conference room, but if you wanted to watch a teen soap opera, you were bringing that shit home with you.

Kiel: Ha! I recall the Mercy Reef/Ultra double feature at lunch. Mercy Reef was so awkward! I can't believe that Justin Hartley was in it as I look back now fully believing he was one of the best things about late period Smallville. But beyond the repeated hilarity that was repeating Ving Rhames' pronunciation of the name "Ooooo-rin" over and over, it was awful. I don't even think I made it through the Ultra pilot. But back on topic, I too watched Gossip Girl from episode one, though I'm not sure exactly why. It may have had something to do with the fact that we were living in New York at a time with only an antenna for entertainment in the apartment, and The CW was one of the few channels that came in with crystal clarity.

Ben: I don’t know if you already knew about the YA novels before the show?

Kiel: I did in that I knew they existed in a general sense, but beyond a vague understanding of the concept of what my idol M.T. Anderson has called "the modern tween bitch lit series," I knew nothing about the particulars of Cicily Von Zeigler's story.

But oddly, the books did cross paths with my watching of the show in two very distinctive moments that I recall even years later. First is that in advance of the premier, I read the New York Times review of the pilot which heavily referenced the books. As I remember it, they reviewer made the case that the appeal of the books was how the teens drank and screwed and schemed with reckless abandon and that the addition of parents with Rufus and Lily dragged the proceedings down and ruined the show's ability to match the outlandish fantasy nature of the book. We all know how untrue that turned out to be, but it was a cute theory, I guess. You hear a lot in the YA/tween media marketplace about how parents kill the marketability of stories because kids hate reading about adult authority figures in their preferred pop fiction, but I think that's a load of bunk. Parents are a HUGE parts of kids lives and therefore great antagonists in YA.

The second memory I have is of a newscast that ran just after the pilot or one of the first episodes. I don't know if you're aware of this phenomenon, but The CW is rife with that particular brand of corporate synergy where the local newscast is always doing stories about how rad the network's shows are. For example, when Veronica Mars was on, they did a story one night about fans sending Mars Bars to the network heads to stave off its cancelation. With GG, the New York local news did a piece I saw about actual teenagers from the Upper East Side who loved the books and were excited for the show. I remember this mostly because the girls they interviewed raved about how much the books were like their real lives – how the characters went to the same places as they did and acted just like them. And to be blunt, these were kind of nerdy-looking, bookish 14-year-olds. Blair Waldorf they were not.

I guess what I'm saying overall here is that YA books have a tendency to feel VERY real and in the moment to the kids that read them yet very artificial and ridiculous to most adults that encounter them, which is I think what a soap like this goes for in spades.

Ben: I’ve always liked prime time soap operas and I had always been a fan of teen protagonists in other mediums—mainly comics—so Gossip Girl hit for me. I had also gotten into The O.C. late, so I gravitated pretty naturally from one Josh Schwartz show to the other. I remember having lively “debates” with the likes of Rickey and TJ over whether or not Gossip Girl had any intrinsic social value, but I can see now my argument was pretty silly. I would contend that whereas shows like The Real World or Jersey Shore glamorized real people behaving badly and getting paid to do so were hurting society, a show like Gossip Girl that was more of a send up of how ridiculous the idle rich was helped it, but…wow, that sounds even more idiotic when I write it out. The Real World, Jersey Shore and Gossip Girl all have pretty much no redeeming social value, but I found the last one entertaining.

I also watched Melrose Place when I was a good decade younger than the leads and Gossip Girl when I was a good decade older than the leads; I’m sure that says something about me and my fascination with whatever stage in life I’m not at.

Kiel: No, I get what you're saying. There's a definite ironic distancing the show has from reality (or in the case of those other shows, "reality") that sets it apart. That's a huge part of the appeal. I'm not sure that fact always tips the show into the category of art that has something big to say about human existence, but it sure does make it less of a guilty pleasure and more of a pleasure, full stop.

Also, while you mention it, I did want to put in one word about The O.C. Like you, I didn't watch that show from square one. Actually, it started when I was in college, and aside from being a Phantom Planet fan, my only exposure to its start was when I'd mention my comics stuff at a party and have some drunk girl go, "Ooooooh! You're just like Seth from The O.C.!" Eventually, I started watching it after hearing that so much, but by the time I picked it up in Season 3, the show had apparently taken a dive in quality. I get the feeling that show was like other notable nerd flame out Heroes. But I think that experience was a positive for Schwartz and company in that they were (mostly) able to avoid either letting GG get stale or blowing up what worked about it in an attempt to stay relevant like they had with The O.C.

Ben: Ok, enough jibber jabber, we’ve got a finale to take on.

Kiel: Yeah!

Ben: Actually, a little more jibber jabber.

Kiel: Okay!

Ben: Did you catch the one hour recap/farewell special prior to the episode itself? I highly recommend it if you did not. For one thing, it’s fantastic to get a look back at young Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley and Chace Crawford—and by the way Sean T. Collins hit the nail on the head when he immortally noted that every young actor on this show has a more pretentious real name than just about any of their characters—but most of all Ed Westwick as Chuck Bass. Because Chuck has more or less been in a suit for the back half of the show, I forgot all about his ridiculous scarves, red tracksuits and ascots from the early years. Westwick waxes poetic about how much he used to love ascots out of character and it’s hilarious.

Kiel: Jami and I ate that up. We were also shocked to recall what the cast's hair was like in the first season. That they flashed back to short-haired Freshman Dan in the episode was slightly mind-blowing.

Ben: Per Megan, the flashback was the final scene they shot of the entire series because Penn Badgley had to shave his head more or less. Apparently he has super human hair growing abilities, because I saw him from afar when I was going to Subway a couple weeks back and his hair was longer than ever. I also did not approach him because I was starving. In retrospect, I can't imagine he would have wanted to chat for more than 20 seconds, so that was probably a mistake on my part.

All the out of character interviews with the actors are pretty great. Crawford and Badgley both come off as guys you’d want to party with while just hearing Westwick’s heavy as hell British accent is a trip. Blake Lively seems overly excited in a “I am so happy I can finally leave this show” way, but that’s fun too. Kaylee Defer is also pretty unintentionally funny trying to make it seem like she was ever more than a bit player. The only interviews I was let down by were Meester’s, because Blair is probably my favorite character—tied with Dan maybe—and she was just kind of blah.

Kiel: My only real complaint was that they didn't directly address the kind of pro-sleeze stance Gossip Girl has always had. They briefly showed the BRILLIANT poster from Season 2 that was just Serena making an orgasmic face with the quote "Every parent's worst nightmare" on it, but mostly the special was just the producers patting themselves on the back for being culturally relevant by CW standards.

Ben: I was also able to confirm that all those people who showed up for cameos and they made a point to say their full names on camera were indeed fashion, art and New York society people I had never heard of.

Kiel And Sonic Youth one time!

Ben: Ok! The show! I guess it makes sense to start with Chuck and Blair, since as the show went on it really seemed to become about them, and the finale was no exception. I like both characters and their early hook-ups were a lot of fun, but once they became the “destiny couple” of the show, I got a bit bored with the whole thing, because the two chief troublemakers became so defanged every time they were cooing or emoting over how they were meant to be together. That said, as much as I was momentarily fascinated by the Dan/Blair diversion last season, even if I got sick of the destiny stuff, it was hard to ignore, and it was nice they got their happy ending here. I do feel like it didn’t really allow either Leighton Meester or Ed Westwick to truly shine in this final episode because both are more enjoyable to watch when they’re being mean and snarky as opposed to lovey dovey, but oh well.

Kiel: I remember desperately wanting the Blair/Dan hookup to happen and being very pleased when it did. That was the only move in the show that could really shake things up, and in retrospect, Dan's fizzled relationship with Blair was the best catalyst to put him totally on the outs with the gang. It added emotional heft that writing tell-alls didn't.

But you're 100% on that Chuck and Blair were never quite the same, in a bad way, after their relationship was in full swing. The worst arc of this final season was the absurd idea that they made "a pact" to only get together once they'd won their respective society battles. Even by the standards of the wacky rich person fantasy land this show exists in, that was mega contrived.

Ben: I did enjoy the simplicity of “if you two get married, you can’t get convicted for murder” rationale since plans that eschew logic and sense for the sake of providing a splashy event are the backbone of Gossip Girl. I also enjoyed Jack Bass immensely as he’s one of my favorite characters and I’m glad he got such a meaty role in the finale, getting to deliver all the obnoxious lines everybody else was too busy worrying to get in there. His “room service” entrance with “I’ve got some bad news…Bart is dead” was great, although he was holding that tray really oddly. I also enjoyed “I had cameras installed back when I still hated you.”

Kiel: Jack Bass 4 Lyfe! The series best pseudo-villain by far.

Ben: Was it ultimately a bit unsatisfying that Chuck didn’t really best his father after spending the whole season trying and instead just let him fall to his death? Eh. Lily getting the line about just reusing the stuff from the first funeral made Bart’s brief resurrection all worth it (actually, he was a pretty good villain in general, it’s just too bad they killed him rather than defeating him).

The wedding itself was nice. Wallace Shawn rushing through the vows was a delight. I don’t really know if Blair’s dress was ugly or not.

Kiel: Neither Jami nor I have any real barometer for whether the fashion on the show is good looking or not. This gets especially confusing when they're telling us the fashion is supposed to be horrendous and/or brilliant as they did all over with Blair's designs this season. But otherwise, yes, I agree with everything you're laying down.

Ben: Getting back to Lily briefly, this was a good season for her as it got her away from the toxic bore of a relationship with Rufus and back to being the bitchy socialite the show needed. Everybody on Gossip Girl is pretty good with the art of the putdown line, but as a Melrose Place vet, Kelly Rutherford is certainly the old pro. I’m fine with her ending up with William both because it allowed for the return of scene-chewing Billy Baldwin—who has become an almost eerie parody of his brother Alec at this point—one last time and him getting the great slam on Ivy about how a Lifetime movie about her would be called Nobody Gives a Damn (for the record, I thought Ivy had a lot of potential when they introduced her as Serena’s fake cousin, and I actually like Kaylee Defer, but no character got used more poorly).

Kiel: Okay, I've got a lot of opinions here. For one, Lily as a character is someone that whipsawed around all over the place for me. I'm down with her being the archetypal mega-bitch of the Upper West Side in a general sense, but the idea of her softening from that position had the potential to be a worthwhile character arc. The whole purpose of the character in the early seasons was that she had once been a grungy (i.e. poor) groupie of Rufus and that said youthful romance was the missed love of her life. Yes, predictable but also a perfectly fine storyline for the C-characters that are the parents on this show. And you're right. Her and Rufus as a married couple was flat as shit.

On the other hand, there were things I really liked about Lily's conversion from queen of her generation of gossip girls into halfway decent human being. I ADORED her relationship with Chuck over the years. The fact that we never got any dramatic closure with Chuck's real mother was fine by me because Lily filled that role in such an unexpected and believable way. All that made it only that much more bizarre when the writers would have Lily throw her own daughter under the fucking bus just to ratchet up the soapy drama.

On the gripping hand, her ending up with William was the most unexpected and hilarious scene of the entire finale, so I was all good with it. You're right that Ivy was maybe most intriguing in that first season when she went ape shit psycho on Nate and Serena at the eleventh hour, but I enjoyed her role throughout the show from the poor little rich girl we'd normally sympathize with but had to hate on through to her slutting it up with Rufus to make his arc worthwhile this season. In the end, what happened between her, Lily and William in the last scene of the finale is probably the biggest piece of evidence to support my "Grand Theory of Gossip Girl," but I'll save that for the end. Proceed with our next topic, sir!

Ben: No character on this show won me over more over the course of six seasons than Nate Archibald. He was unbearable for the first two or so—remember his life-sucking relationship with Vanessa?—but then over the summer before season three, Chace Crawford both learned how to act and decided to say “fuck it, they’re always going to give me the most ridiculous storylines on this show, let’s rock.” The whole 22-year-old trust fund kid who didn’t stay in college more than a semester—the greatest mystery in the Gossip Girl world is, of course, not GG’s identity but rather how they all opted out of school as freshmen and it never got mentioned again—and who has never demonstrated any aptitude for anything running a successful magazine plotlines was a keeper because you could see in Crawford’s steely blue eyes that he fully recognized it’s absurdity and was going to run with it. Similarly, Sage was an awful character, but because she was with Nate, it made everything ok. To once again quote Sean T. Collins: “You’re too beautiful for this world, Nate Archibald.”

Kiel Jami fucking HATED Sage. There was not one episode this season where I didn't hear her complain about that girl at least twice. And justifiably so! She was the latest in a string of characters nowhere near good enough for Nate. It's ironic in the grandest sense how at the start of the series, Nate was the hot rich boy all the girls wanted to bone and/or marry, but as soon as he became cool enough to earn that status, all the main characters stopped trying to get with him. Bizarre to the max.

Ben: And not to skip ahead, but 27-year old Nate Archibald is the leading candidate in New York’s mayoral race? And presumably still hasn’t earned a college degree?! There are five years of fantastic Nate stumbling upward storylines awaiting a spinoff, people!

Kiel I would watch his spinoff series AND vote for him.

To be continued later this week, as Ben and Kiel continue to throw their self-respect to the wind, gushing over Dan and Serena, gasping at the reveal of Gossip Girl and much more!