After six seasons of varying quality -- and sanity -- "Gossip Girl" is coming to an end tonight, its last hurrah guaranteed to be a well-groomed, perfectly coiffed demonstration of style over substance.
Though the show has never shied away from its artifice (and has arguably embraced it, in fact), The CW soap has long vacillated between madcap melodrama, winking parody and tongue-in-cheek critique of Manhattan's elite.
Did it aim to skewer the real-life Upper East Siders whose extravagant existences seemed so far outside the realm of reality as to become myth? No, the show never boasted the focus or insight of Lena Dunham's grittier "Girls," which paints New York's millennials in an oft-unflattering but wrenchingly honest light. Both shows mine humor from the absurdity of their self-involved protagonists, but "Gossip Girl" was never all that concerned with delving into the morality of its players: Consequences are for poor people, not the likes of Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick). Their unlimited trust funds made New York City their playground, an enchanting urban fairytale land full of success and excess, where numerous limo accidents, drug overdoses and public spectacles were shrugged away with nothing more than a hair toss or swig of Macallan '26, as transitory as a tweet.
Where the show did succeed, however (beyond the realm of fashion) was in its willingness to engage with its audience in ways that serialized television never had before, with a central conceit so postmodern, it sounded like one of Jean Baudrillard's wet dreams. Focused on the eponymous, anonymous blogger who cyber-stalked a group of spoiled rich kids and narrativized their misadventures on "her" popular blog, there was a vague inference that the show was positioned to meaningfully critique celebrity culture, commodification and the more insidious uses of social media. While earlier seasons made better use of Gossip Girl's web of voyeuristic tipsters and the pressure (and fame) her unwanted attention bestowed upon on the show's main characters, its later years focused on the series' frothier elements, becoming more concerned with love triangles than even vague attempts at social commentary.
But the show was still a reflection of its time, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist through a regularly updated blog on The CW's site, various social media accounts, tie-in videos and the calculated but perfectly calibrated publicity machine that turned its actors -- playing characters who were New York celebrities -- into actual celebrities. Blake Lively, who portrayed trendsetting Serena, soon found life imitating art as the A-list designers who fictionally dressed her character then wanted to dress her, inviting her to sit front row at Fashion Week and naming shoes after her.
By encouraging the fans to obsess about the personal lives of the stars (on-screen couple Blake Lively and Penn Badgley dated in reality throughout the show's early seasons, Ed Westwick and Chace Crawford shared an apartment, Lively and Leighton Meester were rumored to hate each other) through the subtle release of personal information in interviews and -- what else? -- gossip blogs, the show knowingly drew the audience into the characters' world, fetishizing the actors' personal lives just as visitors to Gossip Girl's blog fetishized the love lives of Serena, Blair and the gang in the narrative. Too meta, or just meta enough?
And all this for a show that only averaged 2.5 million viewers for its most-watched season (its second), subsequently slipping below a million watchers in its final year. (That's not to say that the show's tech-savvy, Gen Y audience wasn't likely finding other methods of viewing that can't be measured by Nielsen's change-resistent ratings model, of course.)
"Gossip Girl" seemed eager to blur the lines between fiction and reality from the outset, succeeding in much the same way as "Sex and the City" did -- by making New York a living, breathing character on the show, utilizing real It Girls, fashionistas, art critics and literary types in cameo appearances to add some small grain of realism to the ridiculousness. (They even scored a Lady Gaga performance just as her star was going supernova.)
Despite Serena/Blake's transition from fictional It Girl to true fashion icon, it is the character of Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) who perhaps best illustrates the show's shameless shattering of the fourth wall. Dan was originally introduced as an outsider -- a poor kid from Brooklyn (or at least the "Gossip Girl" version of poor, with a father who was once a rock star and a spacious loft apartment with three bedrooms) who desperately wanted to date the glamorous and ethereal Serena, whom he'd lusted after from afar since meeting her at a party when they were 15.
Much like Gossip Girl, he's been obsessed with Serena and her privileged lifestyle throughout the series, trying to work his way up the ranks to prove himself worthy of her and, at least during the last two seasons, becoming so consumed with making himself rich and powerful that he has proved willing to destroy all of his relationships just to improve his overall social standing. Having written scathing exposés about his best friends and family, Dan's journey has mirrored Gossip Girl's, with his own quest for notoriety superseding any ethical concerns about who he might hurt in the process.
There has been some fan speculation that Dan himself might turn out to be Gossip Girl in tonight's finale, which would perhaps be a fitting denouement for a show so obsessed with the lifestyles of the rich and relatively famous -- albeit a depressing one, in that it would reveal one of the show's main characters to be a completely calculating sociopath. (Then again, it's arguable that most of the main characters have displayed those traits throughout the series anyway.)
The show has, until recently, portrayed Dan as the only sympathetic character -- our "Lonely" everyman in a sea of self-obsessed, manipulative socialites, trying to cling on to his moral compass as the tide turns against him over and over again. But if the show reveals him to be the real Gossip Girl, the omniscient puppeteer always one step ahead of her vapid targets, it will have pulled off the ultimate long con, forcing us to root for a master manipulator whose every interaction with the other characters has been a well-crafted lie. It would be kind of perfect, if you think about it.
Or, you know, it could be Dorota.
Ultimately, "Gossip Girl's" legacy will be determined by its finale tonight -- will it fizzle out with a whimper, only a shell of its once witty, if frivolous, former self? Or will the long-awaited unmasking of its titular character cement it as the ultimate self-aware series, having played its gullible audience the same way it has played its core characters for the past six seasons, never suspecting a traitor in our midst? We only have to wait a few hours to find out.
You know you loved it. XOXO