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An Ode to the Utter Nonsense of ‘Gossip Girl’

Ten years ago, we watched the premiere of a television show that featured wealthy teens going to prep school, talking on Motorola Razrs, having sex with one another, and operating completely independent of any real-world rationality. It was incredible.

The CW/Ringer illustration

It’s been 10 years since Gossip Girl, our greatest television show/teen drama/OK-it’s-a-soap-opera, aired its first episode. Look at where the show’s stars are now: Blake Lively has gone on to be a leading woman in Hollywood, Leighton Meester made a song with Starship Cobra and married Seth Cohen, and, uh … one time I saw Penn Badgley on the street in Williamsburg. He was shorter than I expected. As for guest stars Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, they’ve moved on from their cameo to become senior advisers in the White House. What a career move!

Aside from the uneven career dovetails of Gossip Girl’s stars, though, there are minor traces that reveal the show’s old age. Its perennially flawless music cues no longer feature songs that are current hits. The show’s Verizon sponsorship means early episodes were filled with extreme close-ups of characters greatly enjoying their cellphones, as if the Moto Rarzr were the sexy pinnacle of human invention. And the show’s intro depicts an internet that is frankly unrecognizable in 2017. If Gossip Girl aired today, that eponymous website would ruin the title sequence every time by blaring autoplay video. (“How do I monetize my site’s pageviews? That’s one secret I’ll never tell. XOXO, Gossip Girl.”)

On the other hand, some aspects of Gossip Girl still feel shockingly relevant. While many old television plotlines are constrained by the limitations of the technology of their eras, to some degree Gossip Girl foresaw the era of social media. The premise of the show was that a world of tipsters supplied a blogger, Gossip Girl, with all the information she — “she,” but we’ll get to that later — shared with the world via “blasts.” It’s a story that would almost make more sense today, in a world with social media and push notifications, with an account called @GossipGirl rather than an extremely 2007-looking blog that somehow has the power to text everybody.

Gossip Girl had so many great things: attractive people doing attractive things, exceptionally crafted in-episode scandals, and a compelling representation and healthy mockery of the things that extremely rich New Yorkers care about. What it did not have is any grasp of reality, continuity, or rationality. When viewed from any distance, the plotline of the show is a preposterous web of nonsense, relationships, and betrayals forgotten from episode to episode. No part of it makes sense, and I love it very much. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this show, I urge you to watch individual episodes, each one of which is a perfect unit of television. And you should also take note of the many aspects of the show that are 100 percent illogical and ridiculous, the best of which I will elaborate on below.

Every Single Character Hooked Up With Every Single Character, and Also All of Their Parents Hooked Up With One Another

In the first episode of Gossip Girl, the show introduces us to five main characters, students at a prestigious Upper East Side high school: Chuck (Ed Westwick), the hedonist with impossibly tailored suits and an impossibly deep voice; Blair (Meester), the cliquish, class-obsessed queen of the social scene; Nate (Chace Crawford), Blair’s aimless boyfriend who doesn’t quite agree with his parents’ vision for him; Serena (Lively), Blair’s best friend whose defining character trait might be her blondness; and Dan (Badgley), the Brooklyn-bred “lonely boy” looking for a way into the Upper East Side. Later we’re introduced to Dan’s former love and current platonic best friend Vanessa (Jessica Szohr). Dan is hopelessly in love with Serena, and Chuck quickly realizes that he actually loves Blair, unlike the dozens of nameless adult women from around the world he often has sex with.

Eventually, the show comes around to a neat conclusion: In the finale, Chuck and Blair get married and a flash-forward shows that Dan and Serena also get married. You’d think the six seasons in between were simple. They were not. Here is my brief attempt at a relationship chart tracking the six characters:

(You’ll notice that the only two characters not linked to each other are Chuck and Serena. I didn’t feel comfortable saying they “hooked up,” because Chuck sexually assaulting Serena in the show’s pilot episode — a moment that, oddly, is glossed over for the rest of the series — doesn’t count as a “hook-up.”)

There were plenty of other hookups as well — for example, occasional antagonist Georgina (Michelle Trachtenberg) had flings with Chuck and Dan, briefly convincing the latter to raise a baby she’d conceived with a Russian mobster.

Additionally, all of this banging went on while everybody’s parents were also banging. Serena’s mom, Lily, married both Dan’s dad, Rufus, and Chuck’s dad, Bart, and it was revealed that Lily and Rufus had a love child that they gave up for adoption — a love child who briefly hooked up with Vanessa before everybody realized who his parents were. (Honestly, though, who hasn’t accidentally hooked up with the half-sibling of an ex-boyfriend and his future wife?)

The result is a six-season flow of characters oozing in and out of relationships, each fling completely unrelated to everybody else’s nonsense, while everybody’s parents also go to town on one another. Somehow, this frenetic, semi-incestuous orgy worked. The ways people hooked up, the reasons for their flings, and the scandals that came with them were captivating.

Under a microscope, obviously, it all falls apart. Like, Gossip Girl never makes the weird period of time when Blair and Dan care about each other feel believable. Ninety-seven percent of the time, Blair vigorously hated Dan and everything he stood for, but for a moment the writers somehow justified their brief interest in each other — they found each other intellectually stimulating, or something? — and then they went back to hating each other. That relationship map looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, but one of the purest joys of watching Gossip Girl was witnessing — against all reason — how stubbornly the show rationalized each and every pairing.

Chuck’s Zombie Parents

When the show starts, Chuck is being raised by his dad. Well, “being raised” isn’t exactly the right phrase — he was being given exorbitant amounts of money by his father, who rarely acknowledged his existence except to ridicule him. Chuck surmised that the reason for his father’s frostiness was that his mother died in childbirth, leading to a lifetime as resentment. Chuck downplays this by telling Dan that his mom died in a plane crash in the Andes, but we know the truth — this is a lie to hide his shame about the real reason for his mom’s death. Regardless, the situation is: Chuck’s mom, dead; Chuck’s dad, alive. Then Chuck’s dad dies in a car crash. Then Chuck is an orphan.

But in Season 3, Chuck sees a woman leaving flowers on his mom’s grave. This woman is Elizabeth, who reveals that she is Chuck’s mother — she gave birth to him at a young age, and allowed Bart to raise Chuck while telling him that his nameless mother died. Later though, she denies this and leaves forever. The last we hear of her, she’s living “at a monastery in Tibet.” (Incidentally, Serena’s absentee dad, a doctor played by Billy Baldwin, claims he spent most of Serena’s youth at a Doctors Without Borders–esque gig in Tibet, and that he was trying to commute to that job from New York before Serena’s mother asked for a divorce. If the rest of the show is any indication, we can safely presume that Serena’s dad and Chuck’s mom found a way to have sex in Tibet.)

Then, in Season 5, Bart reveals that he had faked his own death. He was tied up in some shady business — something having to do with using the purchase of thoroughbred horses to move oil illegally from Sudan? — and at some point, people wanted to kill him. As the show winds down, Bart transforms from an aloof, money-obsessed father to a legitimately evil monster, and in the show’s penultimate episode, he tries to push Chuck off the edge of a building. He fails and falls to his death himself — but only after hanging by his fingertips like a real estate mogul Mufasa.

So to summarize, Chuck’s dad faked Chuck’s mom’s death, then faked his own death, then actually died. The more you think about it, the less it makes sense. I look forward to the Gossip Girl reboot, in which we find out that somebody was carrying a really large and fluffy mattress down the street when Bart fell.

Dan Is Gossip Girl

Some shows have existential mysteries that need to be revealed by the series’ end. Who shot J.R.? What’s up with this magical island? How the hell do the Friends afford their apartments?

Gossip Girl’s central mystery was, “Who is Gossip Girl?” And in the series finale, the show’s creators decided to reveal that Dan had been Gossip Girl all along. It’s a good thing they delayed that reveal as long as possible: Kristen Bell was the best voice-over actor in television history on Gossip Girl; Gossip Man, featuring the narration of an aggrieved Gilbert Gottfried, would have been hot garbage.

In theory, Dan as Gossip Girl is a cute idea — Dan was the perpetual outsider, a writer obsessed with capturing the intricacies and absurdities of this ridiculous world he couldn’t fully understand. What better twist than the revelation that he was the true insider all along?

In reality, it did not work. The scene of his reveal is like a supervillain explaining that this was his evil plan all along!, except he’s kinda drunk and starts taking credit for other people’s evil plans.

Even the show’s actors hated this twist: Badgley told People that his character being Gossip Girl “doesn’t make sense at all,” and Westwick recently told Vanity Fair via email, “I still not am not sure who GG was lol.” One of the show’s executive producers claimed that Dan as Gossip Girl was the plan all along, and that the show’s editors had actually recut a sequence in the show’s pilot to avoid revealing the series-long secret right off the bat. There are two possibilities: The producer is lying, or she is very bad at producing television shows. And I know that no. 2 is false, because Gossip Girl is great.

In retrospect, this decision turns Dan into a masochistic sociopath whose hatred for himself is surpassed only by his hatred for those around him, and whose hatred for those around him is surpassed only by his sheer stupidity. The show briefly attempts to explain some of Dan’s most confusing choices — you see, the decision to tell the world about how his sister lost her virginity and began dealing drugs was perfectly fine with her, because she knew about his secret the whole time. Conveniently, she is not present to agree with this explanation because she left town in disgrace after those things were leaked to the entire world. Everything is fine!

Of course, none of it made sense. Emma Dibdin wrote a spectacular analysis of the retroactive ramifications of the Dan-as–Gossip Girl fiasco for Cosmopolitan. Why did he let the world know about his relationship with Serena after they both agreed to keep quiet? Why did he later let the world know he was also hooking up with his teacher, which ruined his relationship with Serena? Was Dan’s entire game plan to build a massive following online just so he could send people instant alerts when he got laid? Most importantly, Dibdin made this GIF of Dan, in a room by himself, reading a Gossip Girl post, pretending (???) to be surprised by the words he wrote.

Via Cosmopolitan

The clumsiness of this is highlighted by how unnecessary it was. While the Gossip Girl question was a running plotline, the actual reason we watched the show was because we were fascinated by the lives of the characters, not the identity of the person occasionally chiming in to reveal facts about the characters. As pointed out in the Season 2 finale, the real Gossip Girl was everybody who ratted out their friends to an anonymous blogger. The show was fine with Gossip Girl being an omniscient narrator whose life never actually intersected with the show’s main characters.

But that’s not really how soap operas work. And that’s what Gossip Girl was: a soap opera in which everything was tied to the same few humans, which led to a glorious stew of stepbrothers banging stepsisters while their parents divorced, remarried, cheated on one another, and occasionally rose from the dead.