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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2007-2008 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we still want to give you a heads up on what you should - and shouldn't - keep on your radar in the coming months.
And as an added bonus this year, each day we'll also take a look at one of the pilots that didn't make the cut. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
GOSSIP GIRL (The CW)
(Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00c this fall)
The network's description: "The privileged prep school teens on Manhattan's Upper East Side first learn that Serena Van Der Woodsen (Blake Lively, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") is back in town the way they learn all the important news in their lives ?? from the blog of the all-knowing albeit ultra-secretive Gossip Girl. No one knows Gossip Girl's identity, but everyone in this exclusive and complicated vicious circle relies on her text messages for the latest scoop. Serena's closest friend, Blair (Leighton Meester, "Surface"), is just as surprised as everyone else to find that Serena has suddenly ended her self-imposed exile to boarding school and returned to Manhattan. The tension between Blair and Serena isn't lost on Gossip Girl, who is determined to uncover and fuel any and all scandals. Does it involve Serena's brother Eric (Connor Paolo, "One Life to Live"), Blair's boyfriend Nate (Chace Crawford, "The Covenant") or Nate's buddy Chuck (Ed Westwick, "Children of Men")? Maybe it has something to do with Dan (Penn Badgley, "John Tucker Must Die") and his sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen, "Spy Kids 2," "How The Grinch Stole Christmas"), whose middle-class background keeps them on the fringes of this exclusive clique. Even the parents ?? from Serena's mother Lily (Kelly Rutherford, "Melrose Place"), a former ballerina/rock-groupie, to Nate's high-powered father Howie "The Captain" Archibald (Sam Robards, "The West Wing"), to Dan and Jenny's dad Rufus (Matthew Settle, "Brothers and Sisters"), a former rocker turned art gallery owner ?? are aware that their sons and daughters are constantly checking their Sidekicks to read Gossip Girl's latest sightings and overheard tidbits. Overriding all the shifting friendships, jealousies and turmoil in this wealthy and complex world, the central mystery remains -- Who Is Gossip Girl? Based on the popular series of young-adult novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, GOSSIP GIRL is from Alloy Entertainment in association with Warner Bros. Television and CBS Paramount Television Inc. with executive producers Josh Schwartz ("The O.C.") & Stephanie Savage ("The O.C."), Bob Levy and Leslie Morgenstein ("Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"). Mark Piznarski ("Veronica Mars," "Friday Night Lights") directed the pilot."
What did they leave out: "Veronica Mars" star Kristen Bell provides the voice of the title character, "Gossip Girl."
The plot in a nutshell: An all-knowning, unseen narrator (Kristen Bell, at her snarky best) fills us in on the legend of "S" and "B," two beautiful, privileged teenagers whole rule the Upper East Side. S is Serena Van Der Woodsen (Blake Lively), who skipped town after her brother's (Connor Paolo) suicide attempt almost a year ago. B is Blair (a raven-haired Leighton Meester), Serena's best friend whom she left behind without a word. Now that Serena's back in town, Blair isn't going to let Serena take back what she abandoned - whether it be by "locking down" her boyfriend Nate (Chace Crawford), who secretly carries a torch for Serena, with the promise of sex or making sure Serena's not invited to the "Kiss on the Lips" party, the biggest back to school bash of the year. Also thrust into this world are Dan (an almost unrecognizable Penn Badgley) and his blossoming sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen), two working class kids who privately in the former's case (he's another torch bearer for Serena) or publicly in the latter's want to be part of the legend of S and B. Both do as Dan unexpectedly finds himself on a date with the now outcast Serena while Jenny's services as an invitation creator land her a ticket to "Kiss," where she finds herself in the sights of Nate's best friend/future-date-rapist Chuck (Ed Westwick). And if that wasn't enough drama, we're also given a window into the lives of the kids' parents - including Serena's married-and-divorced-for-money mother Lily (Kelly Rutherford), who shares a history with Dan and Jenny's dad/over-the-hill-rocker Rufus (Matthew Settle, doing his best Sandy Cohen).
What works: "Gossip Girl" is the first show I can recall where today's blogging and texting obsession is incorporated into a show without feeling too gimmicky. It, like the show's surprisingly matter-of-fact depiction of alcohol and drugs, just feels like a regular part of their lives - not something that was tacked on as a lame network note. And, to its credit, it repackages all the high school show cliches we've seen a million times - unpopular guy loves popular girl because he "sees" something others don't, popular guy hates his life because of parental pressure, etc. - in a way that feels fresh and new. The show also wisely paints most of the characters - aside from Chuck, who's only missing a mustache to twirl and a set of train tracks to tie girls onto - as grey rather than black and white so the central Serena versus Blair clash feels appropriately justified, even if it is high school silliness. (I wonder how long before we see "Team S" and "Team B" T-shirts available at CWTV.com?) An enormous amount of credit also goes to the mostly newbie cast, who make the most of little moments - whether it be Jenny's gentle prodding of Dan to go after Serena, Rufus being the I'm-sorry-if-I'm-embarrassing-you dad or Blair's mother politely reminding her that she'll never be "more beautiful or thin or happy than you are right now, so make the most of it." And finally, as this is a Josh Schwartz/Stephanie Savage production, it shouldn't surprise you to learn there's a wealth of great music cues and needle drops (I lost count at 25).
What doesn't: It's very much a show aimed at a certain age group as there are definitely moments of "maybe I'm too old to be watching this" for us non-teenagers. Other than that...
The bottom line: ...the CW might have finally found its signature show, not to mention a really great freshman class (both "Reaper" and "Aliens in America," which we'll get to in the coming weeks, are also quite entertaining).