THE CW
Darren Franich
September 19, 2017 AT 04:26 PM EDT

Gossip Girl ended so insanely, but that was three years after the audience stopped caring and two years after the cast stopped caring. Nostalgia remembers the phenomenon, erases later-lesser years. You can go back and watch the pilot on Netflix right now and ignore the canonical revelation — reality-crashing spoiler alert — that Dan Humphrey, last great fashion showcase for the color brown, was Kristen Bell all along. This was a final ludicrous plot turn, so obviously unplanned. You wish that that revelation had been the Revelation, that Dan had suddenly ascended heavenward, eyes shining starfire as he intoned “WE ARE ALL GOSSIP GIRL,” and the heavens opened to rain hellfire on Earth, and decent folk like Dorota rose with Him, while monstrous cravens like Carter Baizen remained behind to smirk and suffer.

But weirdly, Dan-as-Gossip-Girl retroactively gives the show a timely quality that it never really had. It suggests a deeper, weirder perspective on the internet and modern life, vastly more disturbing, darkly funny. An unhappy young man flees to the internet, where he echo-chambers unsourced rumors and unwanted photographs into ruinous media narratives? He’s a troll, sure, but maybe you think he’s a troll for truth, a class warrior embedding himself amidst the one-percenters, destroying them from within (and getting the girl!) Wasn’t Gossip Girl his Mr. Robot?

Hell, Gossip “Girl”: There’s a five-steps-cooler notion of the show that identifies Dan as some archetype of gender transition, a young man whose inner voice sounds like Veronica Mars. “I don’t read Gossip Girl,” Dan tells his little sister, “That’s for chicks.” That line’s retrograde even in the show’s own dude context; when slithery Chuck Bass spots a new conquest, he asks, “Anything about her on Gossip Girl?” And you wonder if Dan is throwing his little sister off the scent, no no sis, I’m a guy’s guy, I rock flannelcore khaki.

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And, with eyes toward a retcon, the Gossip Girl pilot leaves room for the possibility of Dan as some kind of stalker. He looms over Nate Archibald and Chuck Bass in a bus, and Chuck can sense some unusual interest: “Are you… following us… or something?” He runs into Serena while she’s fleeing a hotel bar, and she “drops” her phone — or did she drop it, or did he pull a Tom Ripley and snag it right out of her purse? Much of the show’s initial concept depended on Dan as a more relatable figure, a regular Cinderella Boy among princes and princesses — though anyone who has ever lived in New York can only marvel at the deconstructed grandeur of the Humphrey Loft.

But if Gossip Girl still has a real, urgent pulse, it’s the total inversion of that plot. Was he the modern puppetmaster, destroying lives with a keystroke? Did he win Serena’s love, or trap her?

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Because Gossip Girl involved the internet, and because it depended so much on a new kind of TV-devouring internet culture, the typical decade-out read has the show as some generational marker, a sign of things to come. As my colleague Ruth Kinane hilariously points out, this renders certain elements of the show as obsolete as a flip-phone. But rewatching the pilot today, you wonder if it was always a nostalgia trip, one final look back at a much more coherent era.

Gossip Girl is a blog, sure, but it’s also a single news source, the monocultural rumor mill. You imagine dead movie stars turning on a radio, hearing “It’s Hedda Hopper here!” at the just-right plot moment. And there’s a strange, oddly endearing baseline plot foundation that Gossip Girl is always telling the truth, that — if you obey the tenets of the original time before the universe collapses and Serena moved to Los Angeles — Gossip Girl is an unbiased observer of her beloved Upper East Siders. This is maybe a relic of something particular to New York culture circa-2000s, the era of Socialite Rank. Characters on Gossip Girl treat the Gossip Girl blog the same way journalists treated Gawker in its early days: half industry rag, half blind-item launchpad, desperate to not appear on it, a little bummed if they don’t appear on it.

But Socialite Rank and Gawker had a perspective and an agenda. On Gossip Girl, “Gossip Girl” is a plotline facilitator, an information provider. It’s old media, omnipresent and essential. (Us here in the media loved this show.) It’s also the only essential plot element that time-locks Gossip Girl anywhere past the millennium. In the pilot, Nate’s dad demands that he stay in a relationship with Blair because he’s negotiating with her mom, not the first time a parent on Gossip Girl would go all Thomas Cromwell with their childrens’ love lives. And characters on the show have a tendency to lurk around corners, or See Things They Shouldn’t See from a hidden vantage point, like actors lurking on the Upper Stage of the Globe Theatre.

It’s fun, of course; Serena decides to go on a date with Dan because, um, her mother wants her to go to a party, and me and my pal what’s-his-name here, oh yeah, we’ve got plans! And Serena and Dan’s random meet-cute immediately achieves Skywalker-sequel levels of destiny. Their parents dated! All this has happened before, all this will happen again! These aren’t even rom-com contrivances; they suggest some long-ago courtly romance.

The show’s best moment happens early, when Serena arrives back in New York at Grand Central Station. She thinks her return is a secret, but there are no more secrets. She pauses for a moment, dappled in windowlight, and some casual paparazzo (Melanie91!) snaps her picture. The show’s timely enough to clock some paranoia — everyone is watching! — but also square enough to imagine that Serena would pose so perfectly, that the Melanie91 would carefully discover a perfect angle.

This was in 2007, when — as recounted in Vanessa Grigoriadis’ essential Rolling Stone profile — Britney Spears was engaged in a kind of besieged romance (symbolically and literally) with the paparazzi. The Gossip Girl pilot captures some idea of the internet, but only to serve a throwback dream of New York, grand hotels and high families, champagne in the limo and the notion of “Brooklyn” as anything but desirable. It’s decadent, with a lily-white main cast. Credit Gossip Girl for hipness all you want, but never forget that the pilot closes with a song by Angels & Airwaves.

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But the noise around the show was uniquely modern. It had a few million viewers on a brand-new network. It cycled the cable revolution’s mature content into teen drama. In the pilot, teenagers smoke pot and drink martinis, and Blair Waldorf seeks fruitlessly to surrender her virginity to blow-up doll Nate Archibald, and there are two separate Chuck Bass assaults. High school dramas had always played with this stuff, but Gossip Girl cut loose all moral context.

The Chuck Bass stuff is disturbing, really. Here’s Chuck on Serena: “There’s something wrong with that level of perfection. It needs to be… violated.” It’s hard to imagine a character saying this on a teen show today, and easy to imagine a million rich-dude doofballs saying that in private. Ed Westwick was too charming for pure villainy, so they softened the character, found his inner sadness, like when Merle on The Walking Dead was just magically not racist anymore.

But even the purposefully disturbing parts of the pilot have a helpless glamour. When he tries to attack Jenny Humphrey, director Mark Piznarski stresses the skyline, the skylights, the darkness all around. It’s as disturbing and hallucinatory as any image of New York, perfection violated. They both look so young — Taylor Momsen was actually a teenager, Westwick’s moppy hair and perpetual scarves give a faint whiff of Goblet of Fire cosplay. But that youth is an illusion. On Gossip Girl, nobody’s ever been innocent.

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That’s the most compelling thing about the show, I think: the weird vibe that the teenagers have enough life experience to fill a 27-year-old’s memoir. The show begins with a Prodigal Returning, Serena back from boarding school. There’s a brilliant miscasting here. Blake Lively in no way suggests a New York kid; there’s a Tarzana glow, a California chill. So it feels like Serena’s been gone a lifetime, witness-protected in some distant civilization. When she talks to her old friend Blair, there’s a distance to their memories. “I just want things to go back to the way they used to be!” she begs. “Walking to school together. Dancing on tables at Bungalow. Nights when we were at your mom’s country house.”

The possibility that all the possibilities are lost: This is not something you think about very much midway through high school, but it’s a forefront consideration in your later 20s, when you can’t count your exes and every recent college graduate suddenly looks like Eve Harrington. “You will never be more beautiful or thin or happy than you are right now,” Blair’s mom tells her. The full nihilistic invention of Chuck Bass comes early, on a walk through Central Park, when he tells Nate, “What we’re entitled to is a house in the Hamptons. Maybe a prescription drug problem. But happiness does not seem to be on the menu.”

Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz co-created Gossip Girl during the viking funeral phase of The O.C., the phenomenon-turned-death march that Schwartz invented when he was a little older than John Keats ever got to be. I kinda love the last season of The O.C., but there’s a palpable weariness to the show’s treatment of youth culture by the end. (Remember the Ward twins?)

You wonder if Savage and Schwartz were just bored of teenagers. The O.C. begins with Ryan as a stranger in a strange land. Gossip Girl‘s answer to Ryan could’ve been Dan, but it was really Serena: fair-haired, dissolute past, not arriving in a curious new landscape but returning to a social apocalypse.

I’ve never read Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl novels, but I gather that they’re much wilder than the show. (Broadcast TV has its limits: In the pilot, Chuck uses the word “effing.”) And there’s a cynicism pulsing through the pilot, a cockeyed appreciation of how the rich do play. The show got great midway season 1 when it refocused, making Chuck a more endearing cad and letting Leighton Meester excavate the Hepburn-y desperation behind Blair’s Hepburn-y glamour. But the cynicism gave way to indulgence and indifference. Fashion people and political people wanted to be on the show, and who could say no? (Somehow, unfairly, I trace the Sonic Youth break-up to their horrible, horrible, horrible guest appearance.)

So the part of the Gossip Girl pilot I remember isn’t Serena at Grand Central. It’s a bit later, when she’s in the grand foyer of a New York Hotel that looks so much like a Palace it’s literally called “the New York Palace Hotel.” She’s waiting for Dan to arrive, and I’d wager the direction Lively received was “Look nervous” or “Let’s see your anticipation.” But Lively doesn’t do nervous, and why would you want her to? She glimmers there high above, her dress the color of her hair, her hair the color of the golden chandelier bulbs in her backlight. And for the briefest and most teenaged of moments, she looks genuinely bored.

You imagine her staring ahead — toward endless cycling main-cast flirtations, to phony cousins and a Congressman named Tripp. Hasn’t she seen this show before? Isn’t there more than this?

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