Last season on "Gossip Girl," teenage playboy Chuck Bass tried to force himself on 14-year-old Jenny, take advantage of bad-girl-gone-good Serena and succeeded in deflowering his best friend's girlfriend, the scheming socialite Blair.
When audiences first see him in Monday's premiere of Season 2, he'll be on a beach surrounded by a bevy of bikini-clad babes, who remove their tops just for him (and to, you know, avoid tan lines).
But something funny happened on the way to the Hamptons. Somehow this teenage cad won over "Gossip Girl" fans when no one was looking, despite his bad behavior when they first met him.
His romance with Blair will be the big draw when the show returns, according to executive producer Stephanie Savage. (A photo of Chuck offering up a dripping piece of cherry pie -- and the texty tagline "ready4more" -- covered the preview screeners sent to the press this month.) By the end of last season, it was difficult not to root for the caustic relationship between him and Blair, whom he earlier discarded and compared to one of his father's Arabian horses: "Rode hard and put away wet."
How did this happen? Is this Luke and Laura 2.0? So wrong, yet so right?
"He hasn't victimized Blair. That sort of Stockholm syndrome isn't in operation here," Savage said. "I think of Chuck and Blair as equals. It's much more Glenn Close and John Malkovich in 'Dangerous Liaisons.' "
Chuck, however, is more of a would-be Casanova than a seasoned predator. He's the charming devil at the center of all the intrigue, the go-to guy when something naughty needs to be said -- "Who's the sasquatch? He looks like Matthew McConaughey between movies" was one Chuck observation. And he's the most self-aware of the Upper East Side high schoolers: "What we're entitled to is a trust fund, maybe a house in the Hamptons, a prescription drug problem, but happiness is not on the menu," he told his best friend, Nate, during the series premiere.
"Chuck is the most fun character to write," Savage said, trying to explain the groundswell of Chuck love. "He's entertaining and observationally smart, he's the friend who says all the things you want to say but can't, and he tempts you in ways, at that age, you want to be tempted."
She also credits the appeal of Ed Westwick, the 21-year-old British actor who portrays Chuck. Savage, who fought to keep him on the show even when he had not yet been cleared to work in the U.S., said he embodies the perfect combination of "James Spader in 'Pretty in Pink' and the raffish quality of Robert Downey Jr."
Still, it's hard to forget the way Chuck was introduced, forcibly being shoved off of Jenny in the pilot episode after she text-messages her older brother Dan for a rescue; it's a scene that would have spelled doom for such a character in any other teen drama.
"There will always be people who say, 'Chuck's done these bad things. How could you root for his happiness?' But we don't bring that moral framework to bear on our characters," Savage said.
That much is true: In only one season, it was revealed that Serena had accidentally killed someone via drug use and that Dan's jealously had led him to cheat on Serena. They quickly forgave each other for those offenses. It didn't take long for Nate to get over Chuck swooping in on Blair, either.
Moral ambiguity propels the best of prime-time's soap operas, making you cheer for cheaters like Gabby and Carlos to reunite on "Desperate Housewives" and for things to work out for a politician and his mistress on "Dirty Sexy Money." Should it make a difference that the most ardent "Gossip Girl" watchers are teen girls?
Westwick says it does. "You reserve judgment with these characters because they are young enough to change, and you're always aware of that. I think one of the reasons we like to watch these kinds of shows is because we know there's that possibility for change and we want to see it."
Chuck, like the show's other teens, is a work in progress. "Not everyone got to be multidimensional in that first episode," Savage said. "You didn't really even see his humanity until Episode 6."
Then, Chuck was shown to be an only child, seeking approval from his father, a wealthy businessman and womanizer. He later developed a chummy relationship with the show's most altruistic (for now) character, Serena's gay, younger brother, Eric.
Audiences will soon meet his absent mother and find out where she's been all this time.
And, of course, there's the play for Blair, whom Chuck left stranded on a helipad last season. (Spoiler: He'll run into competition immediately.)
Westwick isn't sure the two necessarily belong together. "They're both kind of childish and selfish in their approach to the world. It'd be kind of like fire fighting fire for them," he said. "In the same way, it's also like two peas in a pod. But I don't know. It would have to be like one of those up and down roller-coaster rock 'n' roll romances, though, wouldn't it?"
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