The boundless appetite for trashy new teen soaps seems to re-emerge every few years, which — given a lapse that has seen a few conspicuous wipeouts — is the best omen for CW’s latest stab at the zit-geist, geared toward an audience too young at the time to watch “Cruel Intentions.” Garnished with a mini-mystery and web-friendly component — as in “Who is Gossip Girl?,” the online chronicler of this teenage “Dynasty” — this series has a modest chance to catch on, though it’s perhaps best not to dwell on the sobering fates of “Hidden Palms” and “Reunion.”
Set around a Manhattan prep school, the focus is on Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively), a renowned party girl who returns from an unexplained stay in boarding school with a decidedly lower-key demeanor. Nevertheless, her arrival arouses the competitive spirit of alpha bitch Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), a predatory junior Joan Collins who practically breathes fire out of her pinched, perfectly WASP-ish nostrils.
Providing a grounding element, meanwhile, are the middle-class Dan (Penn Badgley), who quickly connects with Serena, and his eager-to-please younger sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen). Yet while Jenny’s drawn to the swanky clubs the kids frequent, those waters are filled with sharks like the sneering Chuck (Ed Westwick), who gets burdened with dialogue like telling a friend that he’s “entitled to tap that ass” and hissing, “I love freshmen.”
Ah, kids these days. What with the scheming, seducing and near-date-raping, it’s a wonder anybody has the time to study.
Producer Josh Schwartz was perhaps the last showrunner to enjoy any sustained success in this territory with “The OC,” and even that franchise ran out of gas rather abruptly. His cross-country move to Manhattan’s upper East Side alters the wardrobe and scenery but none of the steps in this familiar dance, which includes near-absentee parents (all of whom look about 12 years older than their kids) who are every bit as ruthless, base and avaricious as their progeny, yielding the “Dawson’s Creek”-like effect of investing moral authority in the teens.
Intentionally over the top, “Gossip Girl” features a typically photogenic cast, though it doesn’t help initially that all the guys look so similar as to practically be interchangeable. The blogging biographer, meanwhile, brings a bit of extra zest and mystery to this class-conscious tale adapted from the Cecily Von Ziegesar books, and CW is already salivating over the built-in Web component. More than anything, the unseen narrator creates a device heightening the show’s youthful self-obsession, providing the characters with their very own Page Six column.
This formula has worked only sporadically in the nine years since Dawson first paddled up that creek, and “Gossip Girl” hardly breaks any new ground. Still, with soaps, timing and intangibles can be everything, so as GG would say, “We’re all just dying to see what happens next.”