The teen drama will end its six-season run on Monday, but its over-the-top decadence has been culturally dead for longer.
On a recent evening, as I weaved my way through a crowded Manhattan sidewalk, I phoned my boyfriend to tell him I'd be home late. Just before we hung up, I looked around nervously to make sure no one was overhearing our conversation, then lowered my voice to make a humiliating request: "Could you DVR Gossip Girl?"
It wasn't always this way. Gossip Girl, which will air its series finale Monday, was never meant to be quality television, but for a while it occupied the same cultural space as ABC's Revenge, one of those so-called guilty pleasures you didn't actually have to feel guilty about enjoying. It was a teen drama whose sophisticated setting and elevated references seemed equally appropriate for an adult audience. Gossip Girl even charmed most critics. In an initial review, Mary McNamara of the LA Times swooned over "the leggy glamour of it, the pretty rich girls at cocktail parties, the rumpled sexiness of those school uniforms, the gothic romance of stone-mansioned New York," comparing the show to both The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. Midway through the first season, New York magazine ran a cover story titled "The Genius of Gossip Girl," naming it "the greatest teen drama of all time."
For a show that won such effusive early praise, Gossip Girl's decline was precipitous, its consignment to the realm of the embarrassingly passé sudden. Most fans view Season 3, the first season after the majority of the characters graduated from high school, as the beginning of the end for the program. In fact, the trouble started even earlier than that, and can be traced to an event entirely beyond the writers' control: the financial crisis. The show's fall serves as a clear example of how economic realities and cultural tastes are unavoidably linked.
Gossip Girl premiered on September 19, 2007, only a few weeks before the stock market hit an all-time high. America was already feeling the effects of the subprime crisis, but the economic meltdown wouldn't penetrate the popular consciousness until a year later. When banks began to fail and the market plummeted in October 2008, a few episodes into Gossip Girl's second season, public opinion turned swiftly and dramatically against the very rich. The New York story pointed out that the show's appeal was in how it "mocks our superficial fantasies while satisfying them, allowing us to partake in the over-the-top pleasures of the irresponsible superrich without anxiety or guilt or moralizing." But in the throes of the most catastrophic recession in several generations, that kind of magical, aspirational thinking became more difficult with each passing week.
The show's Season 2 ratings reflect this abrupt shift. Less than two months after Gossip Girl soared to a September 15, 2008 series high of 3.73 million viewers, its audience began to drop below three million. The attrition continued into the winter and spring of 2009, when not one of the season's final 10 episodes drew more than 2.5 million viewers. Bravo's clearly Gossip Girl-inspired reality show NYC Prep, which followed real-life Manhattan prep schoolers, debuted in June of 2009 and fared so poorly its low ratings prompted an incredulous analysis by The New York Observer. Although it outlived NYC Prep, which only lasted eight episodes, Gossip Girl never regained the ground it lost that year. Viewership dropped off gradually over the four seasons that followed. Earlier this fall, its sixth and final season premiered to an audience of just 780,000.
When banks began to fail in October 2008, a few episodes into Gossip Girl's second season, public opinion turned swiftly and dramatically against the very rich. The show's Season 2 ratings reflect that shift.
The show's creative decline can't be considered in isolation from the financial crisis, either. It wasn't just the characters' departure from the confined world of the Upper East Side that disrupted its storylines; it was also the increasingly amoral trajectories of even the most initially sympathetic characters. Earlier rich-kid dramas that aired during more prosperous eras descended into the same kinds of repetitive romances and sensationalized plots that have plagued Gossip Girl without demonizing their central clique. Over the course of Beverly Hills, 90210's decade-long '90s run, haughty Kelly Taylor and meathead Steve Sanders actually became more likable and human. Even Gossip Girl co-creator Josh Schwartz's mid-2000s teen soap, The O.C., managed to navigate dark storylines without turning every character into a villain.