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Professor of teen angst

'Gossip Girl' co-creator Stephanie Savage's academic past offered her a lesson plan on how to juice the youth-drama genre with higher artistic ambitions.

July 27, 2008|Enid Portuguez | Times Staff Writer
  • HITTING HOME: The show, Savage says, is ?is a story, but it?s also a platform for ideas? and ?something that?s very real? to viewers? lives.
HITTING HOME: The show, Savage says, is ?is a story, but it?s also a platform… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

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."

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