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.