XOXO, Conspicuous Consumption: How the Economy Killed 'Gossip Girl'

The teen drama will end its six-season run on Monday, but its over-the-top decadence has been culturally dead for longer.

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The CW

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.

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.

The ways in which Gossip Girl's characters have devolved since Season 3, the first complete season to air after the economic meltdown, echo the ambient cultural suspicion of the group now known as the one percent. At first, Gossip Girl revolved around the sweet, unlikely romance between Brooklyn-dwelling outsider hero Dan Humphrey, described in the New York magazine feature as "sensitive and wise," and repentant Upper East Side party girl Serena Van Der Woodsen. But in recent years, the central (and by now painfully redundant) romantic tension has been between scheming achiever Blair Waldorf and debauched Chuck Bass—a character so originally vile that he attempted to force himself on Dan's 14-year-old sister in the series premiere. And yet, it's not surprising that viewers' allegiances have shifted so dramatically when Gossip Girl has also become the story of Dan's moral downfall, presented as an inevitable side effect of his integration into ruthless Upper East Side society. Just a few weeks ago, the rising literary star rekindled his relationship with Serena purely to exploit her in a tell-all Vanity Fair essay. Now that everyone has sunk to Chuck's level, it makes as much sense to root for him as anyone else.

And it makes sense that Gossip Girl's cast members have come to express embarrassment about their involvement in the show. A few weeks into Season 4, Chace Crawford was poking fun at his character Nate Archibald's stupidity and Penn Badgley was summing up his feelings about Gossip Girl with the cliché, "It is what it is." A year later, Badgley implicitly yet radically distanced himself from the show's sparkly economic elitism by visiting and speaking out in support of Occupy Wall Street.

Gossip Girl tried to sell escapism, and until the recession hit, it succeeded. But when the real world encroached upon its high-society fantasy, the show faced an impossible dilemma: Would it dispel what was left of its glamorous illusion by changing with the times or continue as though conspicuous consumption had never gone out of style? Already hemorrhaging viewers, Gossip Girl did a bit of both, keeping the posh costumes and lavish parties while dropping any pretense of making its characters likable. The series that was outmoded the moment the Dow Jones dropped below 9000 hung on for far longer than it had any right to, all the while diluting its glamour with heavier and heavier doses of contempt. When Gossip Girl ends on Monday, it will go out like the waning aristocracy it is—dripping with jewels, mired in scandal, and with the stubborn tenacity of a dying breed that once ruled the world.