Why Gossip Girl is Better than Mad Men

Nancy Franklin’s New Yorker essay on Gossip Girl is snide and smart, and well worth reading. She’s got the show’s number, in a way, but I think expects a little too much from it while not giving quite enough credit to the show where it works:

There is a lot of soap opera, but there’s no center to the show, and no sense of life as it’s actually lived. There’s rarely a moment of quiet in “Gossip Girl”—perhaps because its content seems to be secondary to its primary purpose of marketing pop songs, which are heard throughout.

…Gossip Girl’s viewers are well aware that the show is over-the-top escapism, a nice break from homework. Underneath its hard shell of dirty talk and conspicuous consumption and boozing and attitude, it is family-friendly, a kind of guide through the trials of high school and bad parenting, an “S.A.T.s and the City.”

What Franklin misses, I think, is the show’s underlying maliciousness. It’s applied with a light tough, sure, but the show takes great pleasure in being bad, in engaging in a lavishly funded version of the social warfare that dominates so much of middle class, adolescent life. To put it bluntly, the show delights in bitchiness, in the thrill of planning and executing a perfect backstabbing. Sure, it makes the necessary nods to the consequences of such misbehavior. But the niceness isn’t even desert – it’s more like an after-dinner mint, utterly secondary to the point and pleasures of the main course.

And then, of course, there’s the New York as shopping-catalog-fantasia aspect to the show. No, it’s not even realistic for what it portrays, but that’s hardly the point. Gossip Girl does for the young and worldly what Spider Man does for adolescent geeks: deals lightly with their everyday social difficulties in the context of impossible power and freedom. For a certain set, being a young, rich, gorgeous New York socialite is like having superpowers.

In many ways, the show makes a strange but apt counterpart to AMC’s Mad Men. Both are shows examine the luxurious lives of New York’s gilded Upper East Side elite, and both imply that the nation’s richest zip code is more than just a location, but a distinct and all-consuming way of life. Yet only Gossip Girl seems willing to accept that the UES lifestyle has some real benefits, that it’s more than a stifling, conformist drag.

I’ve got an essay that’s critical of Mad Men in the new issue of National Review, and you’ll have to pick copy for the whole thing (which you should, if only for the many other great articles), but the gist of it is that Mad Men is too tepid and passionless to really succeed. Unlike The Sopranos, which never failed to let its audience understand the temptations and fleshly gratification that came from the gangster lifestyle, Mad Men is too smug, too cool in tone, too willing to stand at a distance and judge its characters rather than substantively interact with the benefits of their wealthy and lifestyle. Gossip Girl, on the other hand, is willing to engage with its characters’ indulgences, and allow for the fairly basic, and, I think, rather obvious, idea that, yes, being fabulously rich can be pretty exciting. That doesn’t make Gossip Girl great art, or even great TV, but it does make for consistently pleasurable frivolous fun—and sometimes that’s enough.