With its impossibly good-looking cast, parade of candy-colored designer fashions and provocative ad campaigns, it's easy to dismiss the CW's Gossip Girl as just another sexed-up, youth-oriented product to step off the TV drama assembly line.
There are certainly similarities between the show and its teen soap predecessors, particularly Beverly Hills, 90210. Gossip Girl is also set in an affluent ZIP Code, Manhattan's Upper East Side, and features an ensemble of archetypal characters, including the social outcast and the pretty-boy rebel with great hair. Its female leads, Blake Lively, who plays reformed bad girl Serena van der Woodsen, and Leighton Meester, who plays conniving socialite Blair Waldorf, even bear a strong resemblance in looks and character to Jennie Garth's Kelly Taylor and Shannen Doherty's Brenda Walsh.
But Gossip Girl represents a distinct step beyond 90210 and the teen dramas before it, starting with the show's sophisticated use of point of view. Its rarefied world of youthful excess and angst is observed through the eyes of a mysterious blogger, the unseen yet ubiquitous Gossip Girl. The show deftly intertwines irony with authenticity, poking fun at itself while also commenting on the voyeurism and sensationalism that drives modern culture. Visually, its depiction of New York City satisfies every last urban fantasy, and the city can't help but love it back. The New York Times has called the show's fashions influential to the country's retail economy, and New York magazine went so far as to call it "the greatest teen drama of all time" in a recent cover story. And in the final measure of its success, Gossip Girl's popularity has sparked the CW to resurrect and reinvent, yes, 90210 this fall.
The show, said Gossip Girl co-creator, writer and executive producer Stephanie Savage, "is a story, but it's also a platform for ideas. I think people like the Gossip Girl connection. The idea of people watching and talking about each other is something that's very real to their lives."
Savage is no stranger to teen dramas. She and fellow Gossip Girl creator and executive producer Josh Schwartz reinvigorated the genre with Fox's The O.C. in 2003.
Savage, a petite 38-year-old, could easily pass as a student in the halls of the show's fictional prep school. But after a tour through her 1920s storybook-style home, where vintage furniture co-mingles with high-tech gadgets, Kafka sits next to chick lit in the library and framed Polaroids of Truman Capote swimming in a pool hang in the foyer, it becomes apparent where Gossip Girl receives its stylish aesthetic as well as its wit.
"When I first found out what a show runner was, I thought it was the strangest job I had heard of in my life," the Calgary, Alberta, native said. "When someone's a writer, it's very creative and moody, and you think of someone walking around the office in pajamas thinking of ideas. On the other hand, as a television producer, you have to be buttoned-up, organized and a feed-the-machine type of person. The idea that those two creatures were supposed to inhabit the same body was really a strange thing."
The double-duty role didn't stay foreign to Savage for too long. She was fresh off a four-year run as a writer and producer on The O.C. (she wrote the defining "Chrismukkah" episode) when Schwartz approached her about adapting Cecily von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl books for the CW.
"When they sent me the books, I said, 'I'll do this if Stephanie does this,' " Schwartz said. "She's really tapped into young women and what's exciting for them. I knew the material was a little female-weighted for someone as ignorant of the female species as myself, and Stephanie would have great insight into it."
Savage jumped on board immediately. "I was excited. It was this world that I loved and felt wasn't represented enough on TV," she said. "There was nothing that had that beautiful, romantic, Woody Allen version of New York. There was so much in the book."
When the pilot debuted last fall, the buzz around Gossip Girl was inescapable, as was the criticism. Loyal fans of the book series harped on the smallest details (Chace Crawford has blue eyes while the character Nate Archibald has green eyes in the books). Parental watch groups narrowed in on the show's depictions of underage drinking and teenage sex. It continued post-writers' strike when the steamy "OMG" ad campaign launched.
"When people say the show glamorizes teen drinking and sex, they aren't really watching the episodes," said Savage. "Not all the characters drink or have sex, and when they do, it's always put in a context. Behaviors are rooted in character. There's decision-making, regret and consequences involved."
Despite being embraced by the media and online communities, the show had less than stellar ratings. According to Nielsen Media Research, Season 1 averaged 2.3 million viewers an episode.
But for Savage, relevance holds more importance than ratings. "For us, it's about how did you matter? Do people care, and do they pay attention to what you're doing? I think the show is really succeeding in terms of getting people excited and giving them something to talk about."
Savage's prior life in academia may account for her confidence and diplomatic ease, as well as the show's ambition to ramp its fizzy fun up a few intellectual notches. She has a master's degree in film history and theory from the University of Iowa, where she taught classes such as gender and film and U.S. film history for four years while she pursued a doctorate.
"It was a huge confidence builder to stand in front of 34 21-year-olds and explain something to them every day," she said. "To be in a room and have to explain your point of view is a huge skill in Hollywood."
A dissertation on star scandals at the end of the studio era led her to Los Angeles, where she landed an internship with Flower Films, Drew Barrymore's then-newly launched production company. She rose from intern to vice president of development, subsequently abandoning her dissertation along the way.
For now, Savage is focused on the big-screen adaptation of the book The Au Pairs for Flower Films, as well as Season 2 of Gossip Girl. What's on tap for Serena, Blair, Chuck and the gang when the show returns Sept. 1?
"It's going to focus on putting people, both friend-wise and romance-wise, with people you wouldn't necessarily expect," she said. "Watching these relationships develop will be very satisfying for the audience."
Enid Portuguez writes for the Los Angeles Times.