Why I Owe Josh Schwartz an Apology
And Why I Was Wrong About "Gossip Girl"
As an aspiring entertainment journalist, I tried whenever I could to incorporate pop culture into my undergraduate studies at Northwestern University. Case in point: In my Magazine Writing class in the fall of 2007, among the feature stories I chose to write was one about none other than the teen dramas. More specifically, the evolution of the genre, how it led to “Gossip Girl,” and why I had my doubts about the show.
The article was titled, “Texting Josh Schwartz: Not Everyone Loves ‘Gossip,’” with a subheadline that declared, “Teen Success Is Filled With Drama — But Not Always the Good Kind.” The story began:
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?
I explained how “Gossip Girl was being hyped as the new “it” show months after the end of “The O.C.” I acknowledged the series had a unique spin with narration from the titular Gossip Girl and that there was a hunger among teen drama fans for a new favorite show. But I argued:
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.
To back up my argument, I interviewed TV viewers and critics alike, with Newsday critic Diane Werts asserting that the fictional “Gossip Girl” world was “a little too much for a heightened reality.” She noted, “Maybe I’m not moving in the right circles, but I don’t think teens sit in bars and order martinis.” USA Today critic Robert Bianco questioned whether the series had “enough mass appeal,” telling me:
“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 to do with good acting and good scripts. [And] for whatever reason, even among young people, [‘Gossip Girl’] has not broken out to hit status.”
Even one college-aged teen drama fan I spoke with said:
“‘Gossip Girl’ will never be ‘The O.C.’ simply because it has to follow in ‘The O.C.’’s footsteps. 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.”
Still, I did speak with one 14-year-old eighth-grader, named Stephanie Kramer, who was hooked. The teen told me, “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?’” To be fair, though, she admitted part of their interest stemmed from the fact that Taylor Momsen (Jenny) had attended their middle school up until the year before. Kramer maintained, however, “Now they’re starting to like it because it’s a good show.”
With all that in mind, I concluded my article this way:
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.
Well, they say hindsight is 20/20, and from the vantage point of the year 2020, I can say I was mostly, if not entirely, wrong.
What I couldn’t predict at the time I wrote that piece, less than three months into the show’s run, was how “Gossip Girl” would soon capture the cultural zeitgeist. Even though its ratings never improved, the buzz surrounding the series grew to a definite roar. Just as TV viewers had once debated whether they were a Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, or Samantha, they now considered whether they were a Serena or a Blair (or a Vanessa). The mysterious identity of Gossip Girl fueled endless speculation. And the takeoff of Twitter, along with the continued growth of Facebook, allowed every plot twist to be dissected on social media.
The April 2008 New York magazine cover story on “The Genius of ‘Gossip Girl’” is largely considered evidence of when the show really popped. The article declared, “‘Gossip Girl’ is the Greatest Teen Drama of All Time.” The cover took things even further by announcing, “BEST. SHOW. EVER.”
Multiple Entertainment Weekly covers followed later that year for its annual Fall TV issue. The teaser stated, “Why is everyone making such a fuss over a show that cracks only 3 million viewers on a good day? Therein lies the mystery of The CW's sexy and stylish sophomore drama — and we have some answers.” And in 2009 came the titillating Rolling Stone cover that touted, “The Nasty Thrill of ‘Gossip Girl.’”
By that point, I was extensively covering “Gossip Girl” on TeenDramaWhore.com, had written about the show for People, interviewed the cast at a CW upfront (see photo below), and yes, had gotten sucked into the twists and turns that made the series must-see viewing week after week. And I wasn’t the only one making such a commitment. So what contributed to turning “Gossip Girl” from a ratings loser into breakout success?
Much credit must be given to the show’s attention-grabbing “OMFG” ad campaign in 2008. The advertisements took images of the series’ most, uh, intimate moments and paired them with the phrase “OMFG” and, later, actual criticism, like the Parents Television Council calling the show “mind-blowingly inappropriate” and the Boston Herald deeming it “every parent’s nightmare.” This campaign initially coincided with the 2008 writer’s strike and continued into the fall TV season, allowing interest in the naughtiness of “Gossip Girl” to grow and grow (particularly as The CW reaired old episodes until new ones were available). Looking back on these posters in 2017, Rick Haskins, The CW’s executive vice president of marketing and digital programs, told Vulture they solidified the show’s image as a “forward-thinking young-adult drama.”
Another undeniable factor boils down to three letters: DVR. What “Gossip Girl” lacked in live-viewing numbers it often made up for in delayed viewing. For the 2011-2012 television season, for example, “Gossip Girl” ratings increased by more than 33% when “post airdate” viewing (L+7, also known as live plus seven days) was factored in. The advent of binge-watching certainly helped too. In 2013, a study found “Gossip Girl” was the fifth-most binged television show for series available via SVOD (subscription video on demand).
Then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg went as far as declaring January, 26, 2012, to be “Gossip Girl Day.” Clothing retailers hopped on the bandwagon by mimicking the show’s fashion, some of which could arguably be considered iconic today. And it’s hard to be confident series like “Pretty Little Liars” — another book adaptation with a mystery element — would’ve gotten the green light had “Gossip Girl” not taken off first.
Did the “Gossip Girl” hype remain as strong as the years went on? No. And no one would ever mistake it for Emmy-worthy programming. But it was worth watching, and it helped establish The CW brand (even if the network would later switch its main focus to the supernatural and superhero genres). At six seasons, it outlasted “The O.C.” by two. (Though both series’ final seasons were shortened installments — 10 episodes of “Gossip Girl” and 16 for “The O.C.” Another interesting commonality: Both shows’ final episodes flash-fowarded several years into the future.) And “Gossip Girl” is still the subject of talk today as the reveal of Gossip Girl’s identity remains hotly debated.
Plus, “Gossip Girl” roped in a whole new legion of fans through Netflix, while also inspiring repeat viewings from original fans. Perhaps no greater proof of its continued success is the fact that Schwartz is currently working on a sequel series that is expected to premiere on HBO Max in 2021 (after a COVID-caused delay). Clearly, “Gossip Girl” more than “survived,” despite my skepticism. Much in the way “Beverly Hills, 90210” defined a generation, “Gossip Girl” did too.
So, Josh Schwartz, I’m sorry. I underestimated your power and the power of “Gossip Girl.”
While I will be giving more thoughts on the “Gossip Girl” spinoff in an upcoming post, I won’t dare make the mistake again of predicting its failure or success. One apology is enough. And lightning, apparently, does strike at least twice.
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You met Blair Waldorf herself! My favorite from the show!!! Great pic!