The National Catholic Review
Jake Martin
'Gossip Girl' and 'Glee' portray generation next
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Kathleen’s hand shot up like a bullet. I was afraid that the story of St. Ignatius’ conversion would not play well with my class of glassy-eyed ninth graders, yet there she was, hand waving excitedly, a radiant smile in the midst of a fog of teenage apathy. “Ignatius’ story is like Serena’s from ‘Gossip Girl,’” she began, her words tumbling out as quickly as the smile fell from my face. I didn’t hear her finish because I was trying to wrap my mind around the dynamic duo of St. Ignatius Loyola and Serena van der Woodsen. As I composed myself, Sean piped up, “It’s like Finn from ‘Glee.’” And so it went.

Gossip Girl is a CW television series focusing on Serena (Blake Lively) and her coterie of teenage friends who live in the rarified air of New York’s Upper East Side. Based on a series of popular young-adult novels, the series is narrated by an omniscient blogger, the titular Gossip Girl, who intersperses plot developments with cutting remarks about the protagonists. While the show’s glossy packaging and wink-wink advertising would have you believe it is poised at the cutting edge of youth culture, in reality the show is all gums, no teeth. “Gossip Girl” is nothing more than an old-fashioned soap opera, complete with good girls, bad boys and ludicrous plot twists.

The moral compass of the show is Ms. van der Woodsen, a likable yet flawed heroine, equal parts Julie Andrews and Paris Hilton. Serena, like most of her young television audience, is attempting to negotiate the precarious transition from adolescence to adulthood. She lives in a claustrophobic world devoid of values other than money, power and sex. The show’s primary tension stems from her frustration over her inability to detach herself from the seductive universe she inhabits. Serena’s problems, though covered in the gloss of prestige and privilege, are real; the writers do an excellent job of peeling away the veneer of excess to show that Serena is not your average spoiled little rich girl. Her continual attempts to better herself, to will herself to meet the standards she has set and, likewise, her failures to do so, give the show its legitimacy. Serena’s frailty and authentic brokenness make for fascinating, if at times heartbreaking, television.

But one character does not a television series make, and the wheels are falling off quickly for “Gossip Girl.” The show’s flaws have less to do with the decadence of its content than with the quality of the writing, acting and directing. Now entering its third season, when most series reach their creative apex, the writers at “Gossip Girl” seem at a loss about where to go. Aside from Serena and the spectacularly caustic Chuck Bass (played with heavy-lidded surety by Ed Westwick), most of the characters are not interesting or multidimensional.

While “Gossip Girl” trudges to its inevitable ending, Fox TV’s Glee is a bright shiny possibility. Currently “Glee” is just good, but it could become a show that changes television. The plot is simple enough: a high-school Spanish teacher (Matthew Morrison) tries to save his school’s once-celebrated glee club, which now consists primarily of a ragtag group of misfits. The episodes move along swiftly, sliding easily from one musical number to the next, which is where the show’s strength lies. Using a diverse catalogue of songs, ranging from those of Amy Winehouse to selections from “Guys and Dolls,” the people behind “Glee” whip up compositions that are surprisingly catchy without ever going over the top.

The show bills itself as a musical comedy. But except for the always-brilliant Jane Lynch in the role of a tyrannical cheerleading coach, the show has not hit its comedic stride. (Only Lynch’s rotten-ripe delivery can do justice to lines like, “Your resentment is delicious.”) It seems to aspire to the satirical humor of such films as “Waiting for Guffman.” While it offers the occasional chuckle, too many jokes do not play, primarily because it is hard to laugh at nice people who are good at what they do.

In its best moments “Glee” is reminiscent of the low-budget Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals that MGM ground out regularly in the 1930s and 40s. These films exceeded their material because of the earnest talent of the performers. The suits in Hollywood should take note of “Glee,” as well as of the phenomenal success of the “High School Musical” franchise. Instead of attempting to make musicals epic in scale, like “Chicago,” in the hope of recreating the overblown, overdone musicals of the 1950s and 60s, they might return to the low-key, less expansive (and less expensive) musical of the 1930s and 40s. More “Babes in Arms,” less “My Fair Lady.”

Because of its relative youth and the inherent parameters imposed upon it by the musical-comedy genre, “Glee” cannot explore the teenage experience the way “Gossip Girl” can. Yet because the show centers on a group of marginalized high school students, certain existential reverberations are inevitable. The teenagers of “Glee” fashion their identities through their vocation as singers and through the in-school communities they have created. As glee-club members, they have their first taste of autonomy and self-respect. Soon the club becomes their sanctuary. All the characters are stereotypes: the jock, the sassy black girl, the effeminate boy. All are faced with their own set of obstacles imposed from outside, yet all manage to flourish in spite of the alienation they feel, firmly entrenched as they are in both their love for music and their commitment to one another. The jock is harassed by his cronies for taking part in the group, yet he refuses to back down. Like every other aspect of the show, the potential for offering a more sophisticated account of the high school experience lies within reach of the talented writers of “Glee.”

When the gimmickry, lacquered sheen and musical numbers are stripped away, both “Gossip Girl” and “Glee,” though flawed, provide startlingly authentic accounts of the most primitive needs of contemporary adolescents. Both shows examine the oft-tread territory of teens’ almost pathological desire to belong. Yet neither stops there; instead both dig deeper to find out what fuels that urgent need. The answer both shows provide is rooted in the adolescent desire to be in relationship, to be part of a community and to be heard outside the constraints of the family model, which leads to the first signs of an adult identity.

Jake Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit scholastic teaching theology and theater at Loyola Academy, in Wilmette, Ill.

Comments

Boreta Singleton | 11/18/2009 - 2:56pm

As a high school religion teacher, I love the use of poular culture to connect teens with spirituality.  Glee is a favorite for me because I think the character stereotyping assists teens in seeing themselves in a more honest way.  This stereotyping may seem to be "more of the same" for the sitcom world, but I think that looking at the characters  can lead to some very valuable conversations.  I also love the series Joan of Arcadia for highlighting Joan's struggle to see herself in relationship with God., her family and friends. 


 

3630297 | 11/17/2009 - 3:51pm


I have to give credit to Jake Martin for exploring the value of popular culture in "The Kids Are Alright" (October 19, 2009). While I am not familiar with "Gossip Girl," I was an early fan of "Glee." I thought this was a great concept for a show with wonderful possibilities show-casing a group of marginalized adolescents including the token football star, finding their identity and voice in singing. Perhaps I betray my punk rock predilections, but the kids in the show even made a song from the group Journey enjoyable for me.


Unfortunately, what Mr. Martin neglects to note is the increasingly gratuitous sexual content of the show. I would love to be able to watch the show with my wife and kids, but do they really need to see the "evil" wife who seemingly justifies the sexual tension between her husband, the lovably nerdy glee club teacher, and another teacher or the regular sexual bantor between the teenage characters? Without being puritanical, the show could be clever enough without this, but heaven knows that the Fox network has nothing against playing to the lowest denominator for ratings.


Come on, Jake, you can recognize the creativity in popular culture without selling out to it. Be brave enough to challenge it as well.


Kathryn Ulibarri | 11/9/2009 - 10:23pm

Thank you Christina for actually taking a CATHOLIC stand on " Glee" and the one episode that made me turn, what I thought was a good show, off my set for good! Please, if this is a " Catholic" magazine, could you be sure to double check what content you are endorsing before plastering it on the web. Last time I checked, the Catholic Church DOES NOT endorse " That abstinence doesn't work and that contraceptives are far more effective", but DOES endorse that contraceptives and abortion are BAD, that chastity is 100% effective and that Natural Family Planning is acceptable for MARRIED couples.



William Maniotis | 10/10/2009 - 12:32pm

Jake,

For the most part, I hear what you are saying, and I certainly admire your willingness to do an ethnography study of sorts by watching shows like "Gossip Girl" and "Glee" in order to separate the wheat from the chaff for the rest of us; however, for me it always comes down to the notion of corruption vs. education.  True confession: I do not see much merit in either show.  I find them devoid of anything but the most tepid spirituality.  Yes, I know the students in our classes watch these shows regularly.  But I'm not sure what your article is really trying to do here.  Are you saying "the kids are all right" if they are watching shows like these (as opposed to others)?  Or that they are not as bad as some other shows they could watch?  If the latter, then I agree.  If the former, I vehemently disagree.  Kids are awash in a junk culture, and shows like the ones you are promoting/excusing are just less harmful than some others.  But they are still harmful, and they certainly don't represent any kind of ideal.   I would suggest you scan the dial out there for the ideal, and leave the mediocre fare to wallow in the mediocrity of television programming in general.

Lastly, I wanted to say that the last few lines of your article disturbed me more than your pseudo-endorsement of the two shows:

The answer both shows provide is rooted in the adolescent desire to be in relationship, to be part of a community and to be heard outside the constraints of the family model, which leads to the first signs of an adult identity

Alas, there are not many constraints within the "family model" relationship, becaust intact families don't exist these days, and thus producers fail to produce many shows touting true "family values."  Yes, students desire to be part of a community-any community-but to suggest that families "constrain" them is to suggest many of them have  appreciable family lives.  Check out the divorce rate and the out-of-wedlock birth rates, and you will see that these selfsame students-especially in public schools, where I teach-are desperate for some family "constraint"-or even just a plain "family."

Christina M. | 10/9/2009 - 8:51pm

So, I agree with your statement that these shows indicate what teens are going through in our modern era. I've only seen one episode of "Glee" but I wasn't impressed. The particular episode I viewed was centered around the club giving teenagers what they wanted, or as the main character blantantly says, "Sex". So the group changes their original skit to something that is far more ruanchy and "seductive." This irritated me becuase it shows and almost promotes this value of society (that sex, regardless of being married, is acceptable). Also, in the episode, the main character yells in fron of everyone in the chastity club that abstinence doesn't work and that contraceptives are far more effective. Again, I understand that these shows what teenagers are up against in life. I hate to say it, but the challenges haven't changed all that much, other than that sex and worldly values are now coniserdered even more acceptable and are "the norm" compared to when my parents were teenagers. For teenages who do not have very good spiritual and moral guidance, I fear that a show like "Glee" could actually give them the wrong idea about what is morally acceptable. Just thought I would point out my dissapointment with "Glee" because I thought it had potential. After that episode, however, I do not plan on supporting the show by watching it.

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