I Like to Watch

"Gossip Girl" and "90210" prove that rich teenagers are not created equal. Plus: All the Christmas specials you'd care to watch, and then some!


Heather Havrilesky
December 14, 2008 5:44PM (UTC)

The lives of teenagers are far more interesting than our lives. This can be hard for most of us to admit to ourselves, since teenagers are stupid and gross. Their makeup is garish, their hairstyles are ridiculous, their shrill, giggling voices wrench us from the peaceful haze of middle-aged smugness in which we've chosen to float, neutered and ineffectual, like the voices of those NPR "All Things Considered" hosts we listen to every morning. We are numb and affected and creaky, yes, but at least we have considered all things.

Teenagers, on the other hand, have considered nothing. They're jumpy and suggestible, like hungry dogs. Their empty eyes stare blankly, their back fat pokes aggressively into our line of sight, their visible plumbers' cracks knock us, head over heels, into an inescapable existential crevasse, where we're sure to die alone like the guy in that documentary we saw a few years ago. Teenagers break through our protective layers and remind us of what we've lost along the way: romanticism, raw loneliness, the sheer joy of being half-crazy, the thrill of reckless enthusiasm and unfocused longing. Teenagers make us want to drink to excess and weep inconsolably and cackle and shove each other and text our friends 2 feet away about our enemies 4 feet away.

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Smells like mean spirit

Which explains why we -- the old, the crusty, the irrelevant -- watch shows about teenagers, even though they make us feel old and crusty and irrelevant. We're excited by the hustle and bustle of teenage life, the sheer idiocy of their ongoing concerns, the utter avoidability of their enormous blunders.

Take Vanessa (Jessica Szohr) of the CW's "Gossip Girl " (8 p.m. Mondays). She never delivers Nate's love letter to Jenny (Taylor Momsen), in the hopes of keeping the two of them apart and keeping Nate (Chace Crawford) to herself. But then, when Jenny gives her a gown to wear to the Snowflake Charity Ball, doesn't she suspect for a second that it might be a trap? No. Vanessa shows up to the ball in her gown, the spotlight is cued by Jenny (and her on-again, off-again gaggle of mean-girl associates), and we can see straight through to Vanessa's panties. Oh nooo! (At least she didn't wear the hot pink Hello Kitty ones.)

Even though "Gossip Girl" is littered with such nastiness and pranks and misunderstandings and other easily sidestepped foolishness, it's one big, silly party from start to finish. The writers of Josh Schwartz's sophomore effort, unlike their predecessors from his original hit "The OC," wisely crafted characters who are unabashedly smart and sly and occasionally demonic. Compared to the monosyllabic mumblings of Ryan and Marissa of "The OC," Blair (Leighton Meester) and Chuck (Ed Westwick) and Dan (Penn Badgley) and Serena (Blake Lively) exchange the wry banter of younger, perkier Dorothy Parkers.

Accordingly, the highlight of every episode revolves around the unpleasantness between spoiled schemers Blair and Chuck, whose unresolved love/hate relationship never gets old. A few weeks ago they dared each other to find suitable dates for each other to the ball. If Chuck actually likes the girl Blair picks for him, Blair gets to use his limo for a month; if Chuck picks the right guy for Blair, then he gets Blair's loyal maid Dorota for a month. The absolute unethical absurdity of this exchange between two self-centered, loaded teens underscores "Gossip Girl's" peculiar, kitschy appeal as a teen dramedy, landing somewhere between the swooning indie love ballads of "The OC" and the breast-baring catfights of "Dynasty."

After an exhaustive search that features Blair screeching at Dorota like a modern-day Nellie from "Little House on the Prairie" -- "That girl is out there, and you'd better hope for your sake that I find her!" -- Blair settles on a date for Chuck who looks and sounds exactly like ... Blair. Chuck, in turn, unveils his own doppelgänger for Blair, replete with those Chuck-like squinty eyes and snooty, arched eyebrows. Instead of spending time with their assigned dates, of course, Blair and Chuck storm off to insult each other huffily by the sidelines.

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Blair: If beta Bass is anything like the original, I have no doubt that sooner or later he'll disappoint me.

Chuck: I'm curious to see if the new Blair has all the features I so enjoyed on the old model.

Snappy exchanges like this one are "Gossip Girl's" brioche and beurre blanc, of course, since the plotlines skitter along the same repeating "I love you but we can't get along" hamster wheel each week. In fact, almost every story replicates the clash between Blair and Chuck, just in different flavors: Serena and Dan pine for each other while dating less attractive, largely charmless substitutes for each other; Lily (Kelly Rutherford) and Rufus (Matthew Settle) let a scandal from the past keep them apart indefinitely; Jenny and Vanessa can't quite decide between themselves which of them is hot enough for pretty-boy Nate (my vote goes to Vanessa; Jenny needs to spend some quality time with a double cheeseburger before she's squeezable enough to deserve true love).

But the snotty one-liners (along with the cool clothes and shiny New York City locations and fancy galas and balls and parties and dinners) are enough to keep us coming back for more. This time, our filthy-rich teenage heroines and heroes may be misguided and irrational and short-sighted, but they're also bitter and troubled and ruthless and witty. In fact, the rotating guest stars, like Serena's alterna-dude boyfriend Aaron, always seem so bland and awkward by comparison. Remember how, on "The OC," the girlfriends and boyfriends du jour -- like Oliver the gun-waving preppy or Theresa the grounded baby mama -- always had more pluck and verve than the show's stars (aside from Seth Cohen, of course)? Show creator Schwartz wasn't about to make that mistake again. The starring foursome of "Gossip Girl" are über-teens, so shiny and self-assured they even made Michelle Trachtenberg (as evil Serena-nemesis Georgina) look a little fragile and slump-shouldered in their company.

There is one exception, of course: Indie film darling Wallace Shawn, best known for his roles in "My Dinner With Andre" and "The Princess Bride," radiates like an irrepressibly happy hobbit among the sniffing sophisticates of "Gossip Girl." As Blair's mother's unlikely sweetheart and brand-new husband, Cyrus, Shawn throws a short-but-lovable Jewish wrench into this polished WASP machine, and every moment he spends on-screen is pure genius. "I'm a lawyer. I do think a few moves ahead," Cyrus informed Blair cheerfully after outwitting her a few weeks back. "Some of us can't rely entirely on our looks, you know."

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And in last week's episode, when Nate tells Blair he's impressed at how sweet and maternal she's being to Chuck, who's reeling after his father's sudden death, Blair snaps back, "I'm not maternal. I've just been spending too much time with Cyrus and I'm turning Jewish!"

Of course, most of these soulless pretties could improve themselves dramatically by turning Jewish. But then you'd have to replace the croissants and fresh fruit on Sunday afternoons with ribs and sweet and sour chicken at the local Chinese restaurant, and it's not clear that even the brilliant art department at "Gossip Girl" could give the China Palace restaurant the same mystical appeal as the Palace Hotel.

Besides, we don't want these bad teenagers openly nurturing each other or discussing their problems with frankness and aplomb. We want them burying their troubles deep, down inside, so that they develop the same entertaining drinking habits and passive-aggressive tics and bad debts of their high-strung, snotty parents.

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 ZIP code blue

Of course, the kids in the CW's other rich-teen drama, "90210" (8 p.m. Tuesdays), also have drug problems and passive-aggressive tics and nasty divorces galore to deal with, but all of the above can't save this hopelessly dorky, tone-deaf show from itself.

Where Blair and Serena's lines snap, crackle and pop with wit and cleverness, the soggy stars of "90210" stumble over one cliché after another. "Awkward!" Annie blurts at Ethan after they encounter Ethan's ex Naomi, then Annie does her best impression of the cynical teenage eye roll, as Ethan mutters, "Good times!" Oof.

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But every scene is filled with such teen-bot tripe: "Whatever works for you." "Helloo-ooo?" "Shut up!" "Me and Ethan? Not so much." Maybe real teens sound like that, but real teens are repellent and worthless, remember? Plus, nothing's worse than shoving such drivel into the mouths of a bunch of airbrushed anorexics and overgrown child actors."90210's" Annie has more in common with Broadway's Annie than a real human being. Putting teen lingo in her mouth is like dressing a cat in a little nurse outfit. It's sort of cute at first, but then it just gets sad.

Likewise, even the darkest scenes from "90210" have all of the grittiness of musical theater. Erin shows her boyfriend Dixon that she's just painted her sister's living room wall black, and she's going to have a huge, like, bash while her sister's out of town. Is that a good idea? Dixon wonders out loud, sounding a little like Nathan Detroit from "Guys and Dolls." These two have no chemistry whatsoever. Their playful kissing looks choreographed. Compare that to Serena and Dan of "Gossip Girl," who make out with the messy abandon of two people who are sleeping together in real life ... which they are.

You say that's not fair. I say it's good casting. The masterminds at "Gossip Girl" had the vision to pair up two absolute über-teens, Blake Lively and Penn Badgley (Christ, those names alone are straight out of the Manhattan WASP Mommy Handbook). On the first day of shooting, those two probably took one look at each other and instantly resolved to spend the rest of their lives joined at the hip.

"90210" just can't compete. Every scene that features more than two teens is punctuated by a noxious chorus of forced giggling. And the fact that the show's writers didn't bother to rework these worthless story lines about the principal and his former girlfriend and their bastard child, when they were clearly intended to be written about Jason Priestley or Luke Perry or any of the other original cast members that producers tried and failed to lure back to the show's remake, is a true testament to the half-assed, half-baked lameness of this whole project. If we wanted to watch bony, high-cheekboned robots imitating real teenagers, we'd tune in for the 50 millionth cycle of "America's Next Top Model." Otherwise, we'll stick with the sly sophisticates of "Gossip Girl," who make the chumpy cliché-spouters of "90210" look like poorly crafted hand puppets by comparison.

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A cup of televised cheer

But speaking of poorly crafted hand puppets, there's a herd of classic Christmas specials coming your way soon, and I'd be remiss if I didn't lay out some of the highlights for your viewing pleasure. Yes, I did search high and low to find "Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special" on the TV dial, but that one, which is reportedly brilliant in that twisted Pee-wee way, looks to be relegated to the realm of Netflx and Blockbuster for now. Amazing, how a little innocent wanking can ruin your career and keep your entire oeuvre out of the public eye forever!

In the meantime, there's "A Christmas Carol" (8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 15, on AMC) or, for less traditional fare, Will Ferrell in "Elf" (3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, on USA). Charlie Brown is back in both "I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown" (8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 15, on ABC) and that old classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16, on ABC). There's also "Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, on Cartoon Network), "A Muppets' Christmas: Letters to Santa" (8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, on NBC) and my personal favorite, starring the Heat Miser, the Snow Miser and that old nag Mother Nature, "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (11 a.m. Sunday Dec. 21, on ABC Family).

The less nostalgic among us might prefer "The Office" special, "A Benihana Christmas" (10 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16, on TBS), "Yo Gabba Gabba's" "Christmas" episode (11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 19, on Nickelodeon) or "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!" (11 p.m. Friday Dec. 19 on Comedy Central).

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If this brief list doesn't do it for you, feel free to peruse Wikia's guide to every Christmas special ever made, coming to a TV screen near you.

But if too many showings of "It's a Wonderful Life" (8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 24, on NBC) are certain to turn you into a Scrooge, I'd suggest forsaking the heartfelt sentiments of Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey for another George known for delivering pithy monologues on the state of the world: George Carlin. Although we lost one of the comedic greats this year when Carlin died unexpectedly of a heart attack in June, his scathing comedy lives on in our hearts -- and on HBO Comedy, where they're replaying his last HBO stand-up special, "It's Bad for Ya" (airs 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, on HBO Comedy East, 8:15 p.m. on HBO Comedy West) for the next month or so. (You can check listings here.)

The saccharine sentiments of the holidays may bring you down, but Carlin's biting tongue is sure to cure what ails you within the first few seconds of his act: "I'd like to begin by saying fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb, empty expression on his face. I'm tired of that asshole." At last, someone finally said it! A great weight has been lifted from the world. God bless us, everyone!


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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