WITH ITS impossibly good-looking cast, parade of candy-colored designer fashion and provocative ad campaigns, it’s easy to dismiss the CW’s “Gossip Girl” as just another sexed-up, youth-oriented product to step off the TV drama assembly line.
There are certainly similarities between the show and its teen soap predecessors, particularly “Beverly Hills, 90210.” “Gossip Girl” is also set in an affluent ZIP Code, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and features an ensemble of archetypal characters, including the social outcast and the pretty-boy rebel with great hair. Its female leads, Blake Lively, who plays reformed bad girl Serena van der Woodsen, and Leighton Meester, who plays conniving socialite Blair Waldorf, even bear a strong resemblance in looks and character to Jennie Garth’s Kelly Taylor and Shannen Doherty’s Brenda Walsh.
But “Gossip Girl” represents a distinct step beyond “90210" and the teen dramas before it, starting with the show’s sophisticated use of point of view. Its rarefied world of youthful excess and angst is observed through the eyes of a mysterious blogger, the unseen yet ubiquitous Gossip Girl. The show deftly intertwines irony with authenticity, poking fun at itself while also commenting on the voyeurism and sensationalism driving the culture right now.
Visually, its depiction of New York City satisfies every last urban fantasy, and the city can’t help but love it back. The New York Times has called the show’s fashions influential to the country’s retail economy, and New York magazine went so far as to call it “the greatest teen drama of all time” in a recent cover story. And in the final measure of its success, “Gossip Girl’s” popularity has sparked the CW to resurrect and reinvent, yes, “90210" this fall.
The show, said “Gossip Girl” co-creator, writer and executive producer Stephanie Savage, “is a story, but it’s also a platform for ideas. I think people like the Gossip Girl connection. The idea of people watching and talking about each other is something that’s very real to their lives.”
Savage is no stranger to teen dramas. She and fellow “Gossip Girl” creator and executive producer Josh Schwartz reinvigorated the genre with Fox’s “The O.C.” in 2003.
Suffering from the flu but still posing for The Times’ photographer with aplomb, Savage, a petite 38-year-old, could easily pass as a student in the halls of the show’s fictional prep school Constance Billard. But after a tour through her 1920s storybook-style home, where vintage furniture co-mingles with high-tech gadgets, Kafka sits next to chick lit in the library and framed Polaroids of Truman Capote swimming in a pool hang in the foyer, it becomes apparent where “Gossip Girl” gets its stylish aesthetic as well as its wit.
“When I first found out what a show runner was, I thought it was the strangest job I had heard of in my life,” the Calgary, Canada, native said. “When someone’s a writer, it’s very creative and moody and you think of someone walking around the office in pajamas thinking of ideas. On the other hand, as a television producer, you have to be buttoned-up, organized and a feed-the-machine type of person. The idea that those two creatures were supposed to inhabit the same body was really a strange thing.”
The double-duty role didn’t stay foreign to Savage for too long. She was fresh off a four-year run as a writer and producer on “The O.C.” (she wrote the defining “Chrismukkah” episode) when Schwartz approached her about adapting Cecily von Ziegesar’s “Gossip Girl” books for the CW.
“When they sent me the books, I said, ‘I’ll do this if Stephanie does this,’ ” Schwartz said. “She’s really tapped into young women and what’s exciting for them. I knew the material was a little female-weighted for someone as ignorant of the female species as myself, and Stephanie would have great insight into it.”
Savage jumped on board immediately. “I was excited. It was this world that I loved and felt wasn’t represented enough on TV,” she said. “There was nothing that had that beautiful, romantic, Woody Allen version of New York.
“There was so much in the book. There were very bold characters, and I felt like there was a way to add humanity and dimensionality to them.”
When the pilot debuted last fall, the buzz around “Gossip Girl” was inescapable, as was the criticism. Loyal fans of the book series harped on even the most minute changes (Chace Crawford has blue eyes while the character Nate Archibald has green eyes in the books!). Parental watch groups narrowed in on the show’s depictions of underage drinking and teenage sex. It continued post-writers strike when the steamy “OMG” ad campaign launched.
“When people say the show glamorizes teen drinking and sex, they aren’t really watching the episodes,” said Savage. “Not all the characters drink or have sex, and when they do, it’s always put in a context. Behaviors are rooted in character. There’s decision-making, regret and consequences involved.”
Despite being embraced by the press and online communities, the show had less than stellar ratings. According to Nielsen Media Research, Season 1 averaged 2.3 million viewers.
“There are certainly things I worry about,” she said. “Do I wish we got better broadcast ratings? Yes. I wish they gave us more money to make the show.”
But for Savage, relevance holds more importance than ratings. “For us, it’s about how did you matter? Do people care and do they pay attention to what you’re doing? I think the show is really succeeding in terms of getting people excited and giving them something to talk about.”
Savage performs most of her show-runner duties from Los Angeles, but she maintains a close relationship with the New York-based cast and crew, which she visits one week a month.
“She trusts me to do what I do,” said actor Penn Badgley, who plays the Brooklyn outsider Dan Humphrey on “Gossip Girl” and also worked with Savage on the short-lived WB series “The Mountain.” “Before we shot anything, she knew I didn’t love the way Dan looked on the page so she told me, ‘Don’t play to the words on the page. Do what you do.’ ”
Savage’s prior life in academia may account for her confidence and diplomatic ease as well as the show’s ambition to ramp its fizzy fun up a few intellectual notches. She has a master’s degree in film history and theory from the University of Iowa, where she taught classes such as gender and film and U.S. film history for four years while she pursued a PhD.
“It was a huge confidence builder to stand in front of 34 21-year-olds and explain something to them every day,” she said. “To be in a room and have to explain your point of view is a huge skill in Hollywood.”
A dissertation on star scandals at the end of the studio era led her to L.A., where she got an internship with Drew Barrymore’s then-newly launched production company, Flower Films. She rose from intern to vice president of development in a few short years, subsequently abandoning her dissertation along the way.
“Stephanie always had an incredible motivation,” Barrymore wrote in an e-mail. “We used to tease her about it. She is so thorough and creative and has a wonderful determination to see every aspect of a job through.”
Does Savage miss the academic life? “I definitely miss having summers off,” she said, laughing.
After producing hits such as “Never Been Kissed” and “Charlie’s Angels” for Flower Films, Savage partnered with “Charlie’s Angels” director McG in 2002 to launch the production company Wonderland Sound and Vision, where they developed and produced the TV shows “Fastlane,” “Supernatural” and “The O.C.” Eventually, her writing career took precedence.
“That company needed a full-time leader to manage personnel and chart a course for its future,” Savage said. “There was no way I could do that job justice and also focus on growing as a writer.”
“It was a little bit of a heartbreak for me because I invested so deeply in our partnership,” McG said on the telephone from the “Terminator Salvation” set in New Mexico. “I’d always known she was a writer at heart. You have to support that move.”
For now, Savage is focused on the big-screen adaptation of the book “The Au Pairs” for Flower Films as well as Season 2 of “Gossip Girl.” What’s on tap for Serena, Blair, Chuck and the gang when the show returns Sept. 1?
“It’s going to focus on putting people, both friend-wise and romance-wise, with people you wouldn’t necessarily expect,” she revealed. “Watching these relationships develop will be very satisfying for the audience.”
In terms of the show’s constantly questioned future, Savage believes its treatment of universal themes and issues will continue to captivate audiences.
“There are certain touchstones in people’s lives that will always be relatable,” she said. “The fun of the show is going through those moments through the eyes of these characters. The way Blair lost her virginity is different from how Kelly Taylor did.”