One of the most buzzworthy shows this television season has been the CW's "Gossip Girl," which has spent most of its second season showing a ratings upswing and more popularity for the show's young stars. Executive Producer Stephanie Savage, who helped develop the show with Josh Schwartz ("The O.C.") from the books by Cecily Von Ziegesar, took a break to talk to our Jim Halterman about what's in store for the Upper East Siders in the coming months as well as the upcoming "Gossip Girl" spin-off.
Jim Halterman: When I worked on the original "Beverly Hills 90210," people would come out of the woodwork and quietly confess how much they loved the show like it was a dirty little secret to be an adult fan of a teen drama. Do you ever get that with "Gossip Girl?"
Stephanie Savage: To some degree but, honestly, I was a huge fan of "90210," the original, when I was in graduate school doing film history and theory but all of my friends loved that show very enthusiastically and had a lot of fun with it in terms of thinking about the images, storytelling and the way it related to popular culture. I just loved to be able to watch it on Wednesday nights. It helped get me through my week. I think a lot of people embrace "Gossip Girl" the same way. Not so much a dirty little secret because obviously it's been embraced by some pretty high-level culture in terms of The New York Times is very positive. Vanity Fair magazine. Blake [Lively, who plays Serena] has now been on the cover of Vogue and W magazine. It's not something to be embarrassed about. It's very much a part of the culture. On the blogosphere, a lot of very intelligent people have embraced the show. For example, I'm staring at an e-mail on my computer that Cecily Brown is going to let us use one of her paintings on our show and she's one of the greatest contemporary artists of our time and she's a fan of "Gossip Girl." It reaches people beyond what the normal audience might be but I don't think it needs to be a dirty little secret.
JH: If you look at the traditional Nielsen ratings the numbers aren't huge but obviously we're moving into a time where the networks have to look at more than that and your show is a personal example. What do you think of the different platforms and how they contribute to the popularity?
SS: I think our audience is one of the youngest audiences on television in terms of the median age of our viewers and so you're only going to see more and more of this with other shows as younger people start to get older but their habits remain the same. I think for those of us who grew up when I did television habits are just completely different now than they used to be. And the CW, to their credit, has been very smart and very supportive of us in understanding that. When we got our pickup in season one, we definitely didn't have the ratings to justify that but they were very in tune to DVR numbers and iTunes and the amount of streaming that was happening online and they took all those factors into consideration when they picked us up.
JH: Are you still following the "Gossip Girl" books or are have you gone off in your own direction with characters and stories?
SS: We definitely mine the books for details and stories and characters. Cyrus Rose (Wallace Shawn) and Aaron (John Patrick Amedori) were two characters that joined us this year. Aaron was with us for the first half of the season and Cyrus will be coming back the second half and they are both characters from the books. Georgina Sparks (Michelle Trachtenberg) is a character from the books that we brought to the show last year and she'll be coming back later this year. A lot of the relationships that are now happening on the show are not related to the book so we really are in our own territory. For example, Chuck and Blair (Ed Westwick and Leighton Meester) never had a relationship in the books.
JH: And their relationship is such a big part of the show right now.
JH: Speaking of Georgina, would she ever be a regular on the show or is she someone you just want to drop in once in awhile to stir up trouble?
SS: We love working with Michelle. She's such a great fit for the show. We love the character of Georgina Sparks and we're definitely open to seeing more of her next year and we'll figure that out as we go along.
JH: The great thing with her character as opposed to the things that even Blair does is that you always kind of forgive Blair for what she does but you get the feeling that Georgina could be truly evil and just not care who she hurts.
SS: You need to have one unhinged sociopath, don't you?
JH: Yes! I read on the web that you said you love writing teen stories. As a writer, what do you get out of telling those tales of teen angst?
SS: I think it allows you to tell stories where characters can make really bad decisions and not be judged too harshly for them. With someone in their 20s and 30s, you kind of expect them to know better and expect them to be able to foresee the consequences of their actions or be a little less self-involved and if they don't do those things then they are kind of unlikable. But I think teenagers have such a spectrum of emotions and choices they can make where ultimately you can forgive them and fold them back into the family because they're learning and they don't know any better. That's what's really fun as a writer. You have a much larger canvas on which to paint on.
JH: Many of storylines that are airing right now are focusing on Blair going to Yale and other characters going off to college. Will the show be going off to college in another city or will we be staying in New York?
SS: Characters will definitely be going to college next season. And New York is a character on the show so we're not going to abandon New York.
JH: Working with the CW and the fact that you are an 8 o'clock show, the show gets away with a lot. Are there guidelines that the writers must stay within since drugs and sex do play a part of the show at times?
SS: We have the regular standards and practices stuff that we have to deal with, obviously. We don't want the network to get fined so we're trying not to be indecent in any way. But the network is pretty cool with letting us push the envelop story-wise and so it's really up to us to police ourselves in terms of the stories we want to tell... we never want to just do something to shock for shock sake. We always want to tell stories that feel like they're driven by character and that they're going to be creating story with consequences that can lead to more stories.
JH: "Gossip Girl" has so many on-again/off-again couples that get together and break-up over and over. You have Chuck and Blair, Dan (Penn Badgley) and Serena, even Rufus (Matthew Settle) and Lily (Kelly Rutherford). They've been apart, now they're together. How do the writers keep that going without it starting to go stale?
SS: I don't think it's unrealistic that a young couple like Dan and Serena would have a relationship where they broke up with each other and got back together several times over the course of a few years in high school. I think a lot of people have had relationships like that. And, as in life, I think when people are connected to each other, I don't think those connections just disappear over time. We'd rather have the characters kind of really dig into those connections that they have with each other and service them over time versus just cycling through a new love interest every couple weeks.
JH: Congratulations on the spin-off, by the way.
SS: Thank you.
JH: What can you tell me about it?
SS: It's a back-door pilot so it will air as part of the "Gossip Girl" episodes. It airs on May 11th.
JH: How did you decide to mine Lily's past on the spin-off?
SS: Josh and I were just talking about what was a show that we really wanted to do and the idea of doing something set in the '80s in Los Angeles was something that we were really excited about. There seemed to be an obvious connection that Lily had grown up on the West Coast and we could tie the concept of that show to "Gossip Girl" with her as the link so that felt really cool. Also, the idea that we could cross characters and stories over from one show to another so that people felt like they could watch both shows and they could really have the richest viewing experience.
JH: The music on "Gossip Girl" is so great and always inspires me to download new bands. Who does the music on the show?
SS: Josh and I are huge music fans so we're very, very involved in music and then Alexandra Patsavas is our genius music supervisor that we've been working with since "The O.C." Our editors are also really into music so a lot of the time they bring stuff in.
JH: Any other big storylines or guest stars coming up that you can talk about?
SS: We're just so excited right now. The writers are working on the final five episodes so we're really ramping into those really big A-stories like we had last year that kind of bring all the characters together with a lot of drive and a lot of momentum. We have all of our kids graduating high school with prom and graduation and I think those two things coming together should be a lot of fun for everybody.
"Gossip Girl" returns with new episodes on Monday at 8:00/7:00c on the CW.