Texting Josh Schwartz: Not Everyone Loves ‘Gossip’

Texting Josh Schwartz: Not Everyone Loves ‘Gossip’ by Shari Weiss
Teen Success Is Filled With Drama—But Not Always the Good Kind

(from December 2007)

Somewhere in Los Angeles, creator Josh Schwartz is probably sweating.  And it’s not the hot California sun doing him in.  It’s the drama. Everyone is wondering if his new show, Gossip Girl, will live up to the success of his first hit, The O.C., and what it means if it does.  The 31-year-old has been called a “wunderkind” more times than he can probably count, but does lightning strike twice?

As a product for today’s technologically advanced youth, this new show does have a unique spin.  It is narrated by the titular Gossip Girl, an anonymous character that documents the highs and lows of New York City’s teen elite through her blog.  The characters talk via text message and generally mill about the city like they don’t have a care in the world. Think Sex and the City meets Degrassi.  In this show, the Sarah Jessica Parker character may be running around in her Manolo Blahniks but she also needs to finish her college applications before she can contemplate smoking weed in Central Park.

Just as Schwartz hoped, teen girls scoured the Internet this summer for fresh tidbits on what was being hyped up as the newest “it” show. Though not even a year had passed since the credits rolled on the last teen sensation, viewers still felt a void in their drama-starved lives.  It didn’t matter now that David and Donna married, Marissa died or even that Joey finally chose Pacey.  All viewers wanted to know is who they could obsess over next.

Unfortunately, Gossip Girl barely deserves their attention. Unlike past teen dramas, Gossip Girl has its genesis in a series of young adult books.  But as viewers have noted, the television rendition has marked contrasts to its print counterpart.  Along with other hurdles—like unbelievable characters and The O.C.’s looming shadow—it isn’t likely Gossip Girl will achieve much success.  Missing are the qualities that made previous teen dramas so successful—rich storylines supported by witty and humorous writing.

The teen drama genre took off in 1990 on FOX with Beverly Hills, 90210—the first hour-long show to give an inside-look at teen life. Or, at the very least, what the viewer was expected to believe was teen life. “Heightened reality is key,” says Jessica Brady, a 20-year-old teen drama watcher from Florida.  “It doesn’t have to be, you know, bizarre dream sequences and random musical numbers, but it does have to have a certain amount of outlandish features.”  This includes picture-perfect 20-somethings
playing teenagers who lead risqué lives with little consequences.  When 90210 debuted in 1990, actress Gabrielle Carteris had to pretend she was 16 years old when, in reality, she was nearly 30. Viewers barely noticed. Critics called the shows “unrealistic”—what schools have valet parking, as seen in 90210, and what mother has sex with her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, like on The O.C.?

But as 90210 became increasingly more focused on a gang of teens laughing, crying and fighting their way through high school, more and more viewers were hooked.  Teens everywhere were obsessed with following the lives of pretty people growing up in one of the nation’s richest zip codes. “I remember how surprised everyone seemed to be by it,” says Diane Werts, a Newsday television writer. “That you can structure a show around teenagers and have it be something everybody would watch.”  Its stars—among them Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty and Luke Perry—became household names and adorned magazine covers, posters and other paraphernalia.  The teen drama became a major merchandising industry.  Television executives learned “the heart of youth-market nighttime soaps is in the sex, and the styles, and the perfect skin, and the hunks and the babes,” wrote television critic Matthew Gilbert in a 1992 Boston Globe article.

90210 tackled serious issues such as eating disorders, date rape and drug addiction—all with a large dose of melodrama.   It wasn’t long before viewers summed up the show as “bad things happening to beautiful people.” True to form, viewers tuned in to see what would happen after sexy bad boy Dylan crashed his car during a drug-induced high.  With Kelly, the snobby bitch turned do-gooder, the writers pulled out all the stops.  Over the course of the show, the character was raped, shot, burned in a fire and suffered from an eating disorder and a cocaine addition.  But, somehow, it worked. Solid characters and storylines, both which had logical growth and progression over the series’ 10-year run, became the show’s legacy.  “It was one of the first shows to realize in the way that Dynasty and Dallas were appealing that there was a way to translate that same general appeal of a soap opera to a younger audience by using younger actors and only changing the scripts minimally,” says Robert Bianco, the USA Today television critic.

90210 effectively paved the ground for all that came after it.  By the time 1998 rolled around, the 90210 characters were out of high school (and college!) and a new generation of teens yearned for something made just for them.  The fledging WB network created Dawson’s Creek, hoping to draw in the increasingly-desired 18-35 age bracket, as well as anything below it. Like its predecessor, the show featured a core group of angsty teenagers but this time they were coming of age in a small Massachusetts town.  The outrageousness of 90210 was missing and teens saw a more down-to-earth portrayal of the struggles they, too, faced: divorcing parents, a sister suffering from a mental illness and a best friend realizing he’s gay. But these teens must have memorized the dictionary as they grunted multi-syllabolic words drenched with pretension.  The bright-but-tortured Joey offered former boyfriend and best friend Dawson a brick as an “emblematic artifact” so they could rebuild their fragile friendship. Another character said her estranged mom was a “graduate from the Ho Chi Minh School of parenting.” Though some critics argued it was a far cry from how actual teens talked, others liked the progression.  “That show really took it a step forward from 90210.  They weren’t just sitting around wondering who was going to sleep with who this time,” Werts says.

The show also pushed the envelope, unafraid to reference masturbation (“walking your dog”) and show teens agreeing to a casual sex
relationship. But the writers were secure enough to make fun of the genre. When cynical Pacey lamented they were “this far away from the Peach Pit,” a reference to the popular diner frequented by the 90210 characters, someone else shot back they were “still a long shot off from 90210-land of best friends forever.”  In another episode, the characters joke they’re in “some alternate reality where our intellects are sharper, our quips are wittier and our hearts are repeatedly broken while faintly in the background some soon to be out of date contempo pop music plays.”  Teens became addicted. “It’s a powerful drive, the desire to see ourselves as smarter, funnier and more world-weary than we are,” Bianco says.  By 2003 the Creek started to run dry and ratings declined.  But the DC effect was clear: new teen dramas, if they wanted to succeed, needed to be witty and smart, not just filled with glitzy soap.

Enter Schwartz, a then-26-year-old aspiring screenwriter from Providence, R.I.  Little did he know when he dropped out of the University of California, Los Angeles, he would soon become the youngest person ever to create, write and produce his own television series.  Schwartz knew Fox was looking for its next 90210, and that’s exactly what he pitched.  In late summer 2003, the teen drama genre was reinvigorated with The O.C., a show that improved upon the best of 90210 and Dawson’s Creek.  The focus returned to the Beverly Hills-esque lives of the rich and richer but also retained the humorous self-referential elements that made DC more sophisticated. Bianco championed the show when it debuted, giving it three stars and writing that the show was “better-written and better-acted” even though it still roamed in “teen-soap territory.”  By March 2004, The O.C. was the top show in both the 18-to-34 and 12-to-17 categories.  Even the elite New York Times commended the show “for the way it integrates compelling adult characters into teen drama, bringing the two groups together in ways both realistic and—when the gods of melodrama require it—outrageous.”  The show, in a word, became a sensation, bringing new words into America’s lexicon (admit it—you now celebrate Chrismukkah, too!) and new bands to your iPods (don’t pretend you always knew about Death Cab for Cutie).

But after the first season, fans and critics alike complained of a drop in quality storylines.  The melodrama became too much, the stories too complicated and generally filled with characters superfluous to the heart of the show (viewers were actually happy when Johnny fell off a cliff to his death 11 episodes after his introduction!).  Ratings took a hit and certainly weren’t helped by a controversial time slot change that pitted the show against hits like Grey’s Anatomy and Survivor.  As written in a 2006 issue of Variety, “Rather than nurture its young hit…Fox pushed The O.C. out of the nest too quickly.”  Over the years, the show lost nearly 6 million viewers.  And despite the show’s critical acclaim, it failed to reach the 100-episode milestone, bowing out in spring 2007.  Bianco attributed The O.C.’s early death to creative decisions and viewer habits.  Teen dramas “do tend to move faster and use up script faster,” he says.  “Young people tend to embrace shows quickly and tire of them quickly.  The show went drastically downhill [so] it had a shorter life than it might have.”

While The O.C. was 100 percent Schwartz‘s creation, for Gossip Girl he had a series of co-conspirators: the novels written by Cecily Von Ziegesar.  The novels’ popularity increased the show’s pre-season buzz.  “I was very interested in seeing [it] because I love the books,” says Stephanie Falcon, a 19-year-old New Yorker.  The college junior began reading themduring high school.  “I always thought something would come from them: a TV show, miniseries or even a movie.”  But fans of the book series like Falcon and Brady are a bit disappointed by Schwartz‘s interpretation.  “The TV show has really taken a leap and created its own universe,” Brady says.  This includes leaving out certain plot elements seen in the book, as well as changing physical traits ascribed to the characters. “Basically the only similarities,” Falcon says, “are the character names and the fact they live in the Upper East Side.  They’re using the basic premise but taking a lot of liberties.  And I think that’s okay.  It will make for better TV.”

Critics, on the other hand, are split on whether this even qualifies as “good” TV.  Werts, before she criticizes the show, is quick to point out the generational gap between her and today’s viewers.  “I don’t live by text message.  It’s just not part of my daily life,” she says.  But still, she says it is “a little too much for a heightened reality.” The quality that once made teen dramas good is now too extreme.  “Maybe I’m not moving in the right circles,” she says, “but I don’t think teens sit in bars and order martinis” as they’re depicted on the show.  Bianco agrees.  “I think it’s a little advanced but I guess so are teenagers these days.  These shows are made to appeal to a certain mindset and demographic to which I no longer belong.  But you watch it as a critic and you look to see if it’s doing what it set out do with good acting and good scripts.  [And] for whatever reason, even among young people, [Gossip Girl] has not broken out to hit status,” with ratings that continue to hover around two million.

The show might excel in the glitz and glamour department but it’s still missing the intelligent, intriguing writing and characters of past shows. Without relatable characters, the show won’t capture adult or teen audiences. “It doesn’t have enough mass appeal,” Bianco says. But with a few million viewers, the show could find a cult-like following, similar to other doomed teen shows like My So-Called Life. Falcon and Brady say they will continue to watch, though they know the show may not ever live up to their expectations.  “Gossip Girl will never be The O.C. simply because it has to follow in the O.C.’s footsteps,” Brady says. “The comparisons are inevitable and that will always make Gossip Girl seem like an imitation.  It’s not as witty; it’s not as self-deprecating; it’s not as fluid.  It does have the potential to be good, but it will never be the same kind of sensation.”

But some of today’s middle-schoolers think Gossip Girl is right up their alley.  Stephanie Kramer, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Hoover Middle School in Potomac, Md., says she and her classmates adore the show.  “I always go to school and they say ‘Did you watch Gossip Girl last night?’ And someone will say, ‘No, I missed it. Can you tell me what happened?'” she says.  Kramer says she’s drawn to the show because of its intriguing structure.  “I like it because it keeps you wanting more.  It always leaves some sort of hint, making you want to watch the other episodes.”  Kramer admits, though, she watches the show for another reason as well: Taylor Momsen, the actress that plays Jenny Humphrey on the show, was a student at Hoover just last year.  Kramer says she and her friends at first watched because they wanted to see how Momsen would do on the small screen.  But “now they’re starting to like it because it’s a good show.”  Kramer says she likes seeing characters in a setting so different from her own life.  But their communication practices are pretty similar.  Like on the show, “every time I see someone, they’re either texting, or on video phone or AIM,” she says.

And it seems students in Kramer’s school have taken the Gossip Girl blog to heart.  “Kids made a Hoover Middle School gossip girl,” she says. Using MySpace, some anonymous students began posting about fellow classmates on-line.  Although the site was eventually taken down at the behest of the school administration, to this day, no one knows the real identities behind it.  “Kids at my school always gossip about things,” Kramer says.  Maybe the show is more set in reality than initially thought.

The show does have some things going for it: little to no competition (the only other teen drama on the air, One Tree Hill, has always floundered in the ratings) and consistently high iTunes episode downloads. But if Gossip Girl is going to survive, it’s going to need a lot more Kramers watching and a whole lot less 30-something critics.

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