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Television Review

'Gossip Girl' returns with rich wit

Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick in ''Gossip Girl.'' Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick in ''Gossip Girl.'' (GIOVANNI RUFINO/THE CW)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 1, 2008
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You know how "Clueless" was a reboot of Jane Austen's "Emma," and how "Ten Things I Hate About You" brought Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" to the halls of Padua High School? Well, the CW's "Gossip Girl" really has no specific canonical underpinnings, no classic blueprint that will give its fans an acceptable excuse. We have no literary defense.

I could say that the CW soap opera has shadings of "The Great Gatsby" in its material excess and moral hollowness, particularly tonight at 8 on Channel 56, when "Gossip Girl" returns amid the pleasure pursuits of summer Hamptons society. Maybe bratty aristocrat Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) is Daisy Buchanan with a PDA, a gay dad, and a history of bulimia? Or wait, perhaps adversary-lovers Blair and Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) are meant to be Beatrice and Benedick of "Much Ado About Nothing," swathed in Prada? Blair tortures Chuck, Chuck tortures Blair, love is in the air.

Nope. "Gossip Girl" will probably never find its way into a PhD dissertation in English literature. The series does bear some resemblance to contemporary novels about the angst of wealthy, young New Yorkers, which is why it's fitting that author Jay McInerney cameos tonight, as the mentor of aspiring writer Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley). But ultimately, it is a newfangled concoction, with roots in the young-adult novels of Cecily von Ziegesar and "The Hills"-style reality soaps. "Gossip Girl" also takes cues from celebrity websites such as TMZ, as its jet-set scandals are chronicled by the titular e-tattler with the rapier wit: "Ain't karma a bitch?" Gossip Girl narrates tonight. "We know Blair Waldorf is."

But the pleasures of "Gossip Girl" needn't be guilty. This melodrama isn't high TV art, or even middling; but it's dishy, farcical, and funny, as the willowy Serena (Blake Lively) and her circle prey on one another. Blair is endlessly entertaining, a queen bee whose sting can be excruciating - as failed scenester Jenny (Taylor Momsen) learned last season. This season promises much Blair misbehavior, as she gets involved with a mystery man to provoke Chuck. That storyline, like the new plot involving Nate (Chace Crawford) and an older married woman, takes unexpected turns by the end of episode 2. And as for Serena and Dan, the pair who are now broken up? You don't think they'll stay apart forever, do you?

Some viewers are disappointed that "Gossip Girl" doesn't have a more obvious sense of conscience. Oh, Blair has a heart, as do Chuck and most of the other characters, despite their betrayals and manipulations. But still, the "Gossip Girl" writers are not overly concerned with the good guys vs. bad guys, or the dangers of drugs and alcohol and teen sex. The stories don't seemed designed to teach lessons, as they have been on other teen series from "Beverly Hills 90210" to "The O.C."

And yet "Gossip Girl" does implicitly slip us an age-old message. While it delivers the fantasy of being not just rich, but New York rich, the show reminds our recession-weary souls that the wealthy can be miserable, too. Yup. That's a moral that never gets tired, or boring.

Gossip Girl

Starring: Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford, Taylor Momsen, Ed Westwick, Matthew Settle

On: The CW, Channel 56

Tonight, 8-9

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