To lead with the conclusion: the 18-episode first season of Gossip Girl was fantastic - a shameless and mesmerizing look into the sleazy lives of New York's over-privileged teens. I have a hard time resisting more-ish teen soaps, and, in the case of this show, I'm glad I didn't.
The shows are introduced and - loosely - narrated by the enigmatic 'Gossip Girl'. She's an upper-crust blogger that keeps the plot moving by circulating tips. She's also voiced by the (uncredited) Kirsten Bell, who does the job in her snarkiest Veronica Mars 'I'm making fun of the rich people' accent, which is good fun.
To get the criticism out of the way, Gossip Girl suffers from the same genre failings as virtually every other teen drama:
First, who casts this shit? The lead - Serena - is seemingly as old as the woman that plays her mother. And although she has the perfect voice (an odd comment, but true) and a fair amount of acting ability, she's an unconvincing 17 year old. Her boyfriend, Dan, isn't much better (although he's a generation younger, as he only looks mid-20's).
Second, there's the critical detachment that makes me realize that 'nothing actually happens on this show'. Outside of TV-land, were I sitting in a bar or cafe, listening to people tell me these stories, I'd be bored to tears. Thank god for soundtracks & models, huh?
Third, although not as annoying as it was on the OC, the TV portrayal "poor" family from the other side of the tracks is pretty awful. The Humpreys (hero Dan, little sister Jenny, hot dad Rufus and anorexic mom Allison) are 'poor'. You know this because they live in Brooklyn and complain a lot about money. Jenny even makes her own dresses, the starving waif. Their Brooklyn "squat" is a massive loft, that may be the coolest building I've ever seen - lined with art, old records, books and other things that poor people have (like guitars). Rufus is an old rock star (seriously) and a gallery owner. Granted the family isn't landed nobility like the rest of the show, but when there are storylines like 'Jenny can't find $120', it is hard to swallow. Sell one of your dad's 85,000 records on eBay.
However, all of these are standard failings - the genre conventions we've learned to know and love from teen dramas. Kind of like the unstated acceptance that everyone is hot and minorities don't exist. Gossip Girl has a few unique failings as well (the occasional use of slow motion being one of them), but nothing major.
What makes Gossip Girl shocking watchable is how it defies convention, not follows it. Another show about beautiful, evil rich kids is old news - Gossip Girl actually puts a unique spin on it by actually making everyone kind of nice. This is a controversial approach to a soap, but it... gasp... works. Sure, people are mean to one another. Everyone is pretty much an adulterous, hard-partying social climber. But when the chips come down, they're not bad people. Charles "Chuck" Bass, the manipulative junior with the appearance of Emperor Commodus, starts as a sinister figure - but his 'bad' stain gets quickly scrubbed off. We're constantly reminded that he's up to naughty behaviour, but he's out to impress his dad, win the girl he loves, break free of societal strain, etc. etc. And when his friends need him - he's always there, no questions asked. Foppish pretty-boy Nate is in the same boat - he starts as a self-absorbed Romeo, but is quickly revealed to be an all around 'nice guy' - one of the show's more surprising transformations.
This adds an element of oddly-realistic relief. Even as the core cast bicker, fight and are bitchy to one another, they're all there for one another in the end. There's not an Entourage-level of hugging it out, but there is an underlying mutual respect (even if it is concealed beneath layers of cattiness).
The single most unusual thing about Gossip Girl - and by far where it exceeds expectations - is that people talk to one another. Using the Gossip Girl blog as a plot vehicle means that the show has a strong underlying theme about honesty: truth will always out. This, we'll all recognize, is generally the plot for every single episode of every single soap opera or drama: there's a misunderstanding, people foolishly lie about it, things go pear-shaped. Too often (and this counts the otherwise exceptional Veronica Mars), I'm watching a teen show in which the (30-year-old) leads don't just tell one another what's going on. They're all stupidly internalizing everything, which leads to chaos, which leads to confusion, which leads to cheating on him with his best friend, hard drug use and hair-pulling in the 3rd floor bathroom.
Gossip Girl, to its credit, never uses this as a plot device. The leads all tell one another things and talk through misunderstandings, so all the painful little bits and pieces that could explode are very rapidly defused. I love it.
Unfortunately for Season 1, the final couple episodes - with the appearance of the sinister Georgina (played by Buffy's little sister, who still has the face of a puppy that I want to lock out in the rain) and Serena's unfathomable lies to cover for her. The two things that make Gossip Girl great: the lack of inhuman evil & the commitment to realistic, open communication... they both fall by the wayside. Granted, Serena is punished by straying from the path of the truthful and honest, but watching her shamelessly lie - with all the standard teen drama repercussions - for two episodes felt like a massive departure from both her character and the show's.
I'll absolutely pick up Season 2. Season 1 was 90% watchable and 90% fun. I was disappointed by the trainwreck of the last two episodes - it felt like the series was trying to masochistically sabotage itself to create cliff-hangers for the summer - but not so much that I'd quit on it. To the contrary, I'm looking forward to buying the next season and getting stuck in.