Gossip Girl is to 2008 as Girls is to 2012.
Gossip Girl comes to a halt on December 17th, after six seasons of duplicitous scheming, barely-there couture, and "scandalous" teen sex. But as Gossip Girl's illusions of grandeur (as glimpsed through Blake Lively's legs) fade out, the real-bodied, awkward, emotional car crash that is Lena Dunham's Girls has taken center stage. How did two very different shows command the zeitgeist so thoroughly a scant four years apart?
Gossip Girl arrived in late 2007 and hit its stride in 2008, a year marked by the housing crash and the worst economic depression since the Great one. In the midst of this tumult, people wanted fantasy, glamor; the type of apolitical, inconsequential drama that the show promised and delivered. Consequently, it was talked about to death. New York Magazine called the "most awesomely awesome show ever." Eventually, though, it turned solidly into a soap opera (complete with back-from-the-dead twists), and on the eve of its demise, seems tacky, like something we've outgrown since high school.
Girls launched this year to a nation in the midst of a muddled recuperation. Brunches, Bendel's, and Barney's aren't even a cold escapist comfort anymore; the public has spoken, and it wants a voice it can gripe with. Raw, invasive, and unnervingly reminiscent of real life, Girls was the most talked-about show of 2012, taking that title only four years after Gossip Girl, a show that was its polar opposite. Gossip Girl promised a look into the "the scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite;" Girls delivers "the assorted humiliations and rare triumphs of a group of girls in their early 20s."
Gossip Girl succeeded because it was coming off the suntanned high of creator Josh Schwartz's triumphant teen drama The O.C. and the high-water mark where the wave of wealth-porn reality TV (The Hills) broke. Girls, on the other hand, is building on the success of consciously bumbling, self-aware, mockumentary shows like Louie and Parks and Recreation. If Gossip Girl's were written at dick level and sent to TMZ, Dunham's characters are written at a gut level and uploaded to Tumblr. While both are purportedly offering an "insider" glimpse of something, and both chasing the holy grail of authenticity, they're doing it in different ways. Gossip Girl shows a glossy behind-the-curtain vision of the world we wanted to live in as we tottered towards a recession, while Girls shows us that behind other people's curtains, it's just as bad. Both are trading on different aspects of the Web 2.0: vicariously witnessing a world you'll never really know in one case; emotional, too-much-information oversharing in the other.
Gossip Girl's all-knowing narration comes via an anonymous, all-seeing blogger, while Girls narrative thrust is defined by Dunham's character Hannah's in-progress memoir. Gossip Girl's third-person narration created distance — everything is framed, canned, and Girls' plays on how social media and personal blogging have largely made that narrative distance seem antiquated. In many ways, it mirrors the internet's telescoping sense of possibility: why read a blog when you can write a blog? Why read about something after it's happened when you can watch it as it happens?
When it launched in 2007, Gossip Girl made sense. Perez Hilton reigned, and Facebook had been opened to the public only a year earlier — we were still more interested in what the internet could tell us than what we could tell it of ourselves. Now, Girls' stock and trade is the inversion of that formula. Gossip Girl characters used to wreak havoc by sending a topless shot of an enemy to all the right people, while Girls' characters pontificate about which angle of self-shot will be most flattering shot to their breasts. At this point, TMZ might be able to unseat a politician, but it's more likely the politician will do it himself with a misfired tweet. There's no need to log onto Gossip Girl's blog when you can just wait for Serena's AMA.
And that's necessarily not a bad thing. Gossip Girl responded to a call for escapism, and for that, we salute it as it heads into the sunset. After all, what do we talk about when we talk about Girls? Truth, self, and pain — all of which generally make for better art than escapism. People take Girls to task for being overly narcissistic and navel-gazing, but it still signifies a progression from Gossip Girls' cheerily voyeuristic artifice. We might not all live in Girls' world, but it sure lives in ours.