Gossip Girl 3.10 “The Last Days of Disco Stick” (aka The Gagaesque Modality)

Two of my recent focuses in media analysis have been Gossip Girl and Lady Gaga; the show played a large number of her tracks last season, so perhaps it was inevitable they would eventually collide. Nevertheless, it’s kind of like the Beagle landing at the Galapagos for me. While my 7200-word feature article on Lady Gaga’s videography awaits editorial approval, consider this a preface to that piece. Oh yeah, I guess other stuff happened in this episode too; let’s get that out of the way.

First, let’s examine the sub- and filler plots. There’s Jenny and the ambassador’s son, which is fairly forgettable — especially since we’ve seen it before, and without the self-aware acknowledgment that accompanied cotillion on “They Shoot Humphreys, Don’t They?” Jenny hangs out with a slightly more mature-seeming, kind of dangerous guy, but she’s too rebellious and headstrong to the warnings given to her; this is the Jenny and the fashion photographer all over again, and with nary an inversion or nuance to it. If we acknowledge that the supreme strength of the television medium is the ability to construct longer and more complex narratives than would be possible in a shorter form, then a plotline like this is an almost-criminal misuse of the form. Gossip Girl doesn’t need to be Mad Men or The Wire, but even heavily episodic shows like CSI know that character progression is important. From a purely story-focused perspective, I preferred the fast-talking relentlessly creative J. Humphrey whose headstrong nature led her to charge into untenable endeavors that ended in beautiful failure, instead of the ennui-filled Upper East Automaton she always secretly dreamed of becoming. From a political perspective though, Jenny is a picture-perfect representation of the pernicious effect that windfall wealth has on the labor aristocracy, who choose to sacrifice creative potential and identity to wallow in expropriated riches. Of note in the plotline is Chuck Bass’s role; the Chuck -Jenny interaction is one of the sparsely-plotted pairings in the series, so it’s interesting to see the changing dynamic in that regard. Starting from his attempt to rape her in the series pilot, the two reached a detente, and Jenny held up the mirror for Chuck and showed him that he was heading down an isolating and self-destructive path. The possibility that he might do the same for Jenny is a bright spot in the arc and would be a trademark inversion.

The interposition of Nate in the Serena-Trip affair plotline surprisingly gives it a watchable dimension. It’s refreshing to get him back in world-weary guru mode, as the character who’s gone through some of the worst tribulations in the series. Unlike the credulity-straining machinations of his brother’s Congressional election, the current situation — affairs with married partners and fucked-up love triangles — are right in his wheelhouse, as he acknowledges himself. Sadly, Gossip Girl tries to give the plotline dramatic oomph in one of the few ways it seems to remember: by making Serena act as stupidly as possible. It’s unfortunate. Since the show is one that lives and dies by its triangles, Nate has to be the third point on it, the way that they bring up buried tension between him and Serena is actually intriguing. However, the plot is damned by the utter lack of chemistry between Serena and Trip; everything they do is telegraphed by obvious shorthand. For example, they finish each others’ stilted anecdotes to announce to the audience that they have a history, and they have a hackneyed “up late at the office” encounter to bludgeon “This is what sexual tension looks like!” Most of the rest of their interactions are repeated “This is wrong” – “But it feels right” waffling exchanges in Trip’s office. To be fair, it appears to be a roughly accurate anatomy of most workplace affairs, but it’s a writer’s job to make plot progression more than the rattling off of bullet points from an outline. Note the ultra-mechanical kiss scene between them at the end of the episode, where they appear to be carefully making sure they’re hitting their marks. Blake Lively has delivered good work before, so this seems to be more of an issue with the lifelessness of the plotline. It almost makes me try to look for a satirical element that’s going over my head.

Now, on to Dan and Vanessa and Olivia (and Blair and Lady Gaga). This episode’s plot revolves how Dan is utterly oblivious to the emotional undercurrents following his threesome, a curious blind spot for someone who wishes to be a writer. As recounted in the flashbacks (some hilarious, as Hilary Duff admirably sells the “getting kicked out of Dan’s bed” pratfall that Blake Lively nailed in the first season), both Olivia and Vanessa have residual doubts and awkwardness from that night’s events. Couple this with Blair’s attempts to impress the NYU Tischies (or Tischites, whatever) and somehow Dan is tasked with writing “A Snow White – Lady Gaga musical to be directed by Blair Waldorf” in which Olivia stars. Vanessa ends up the director, making the whole thing a minefield. The resulting amateur theater is hilariously awful on all counts, but excising it from the Lady Gaga context, it’s all about how Olivia orchestrates events to get Vanessa and Dan to kiss during the skit to generate a moment of Hamlet-like realization in Dan. You see, in the previously-discussed Joffe-Undressed threesome taxonomy, Dan-Olivia-Vanessa was a catalyst threesome: Olivia detected a strong connection between Dan and Vanessa, and ended up being the unwitting conduit between the two. Of course, a catalyst is prone to generating an unstable reaction; both Blair and Nate warn that “the third person is always supposed to be a stranger.” Dan has the moment of realization, but Vanessa doesn’t. This is interesting, if only because it’s an inversion and resurrection of long-forgotten plot elements that were buried in the first season.

But this episode was should have been all about Lady Gaga. When you have a musical performance artist that’s the psychic fusion of Warhol, Hitchcock, Bowie, and Madonna, you let her take the reins, damn it! I know I give the coma/alternate universe episode of The O.C. so much grief, but if there were any time to go entirely off the rails and into crazy uncharted narrative territory, it’s when you’re collaborating with LADY FUCKING GAGA. She has one of the strongest visual sensibilities and authorial signatures of any popular artist today; she even had interesting things to say about the nature of television guesting:

“I really sat down with the writers,” she said. “I was like, ‘Look, I want to do this, and the reason I want to do this is because I am trying to say something that is not mainstream in a mainstream capacity. So, if I can say it on your show, that would be, like, a real coup d’état for me as a performance artist.’ “

The result sounds like an elaborate music video. “I am the narrator behind what is going on with the characters and make the song part of the moment,” she explained about the “crazy performance-art piece.” “We used these ladders, and I’m falling off ladders. Ladders are kind of a monster symbol about bad luck. And I have this 35-foot-long dress on and these X’s, very gothic-inspired. It was great. They let me do whatever the hell I wanted. It was amazing.”

Unfortunately, at this point the budget of a single one of her videos is probably more than an entire hour of Gossip Girl, and it shows. Her performance serves as a mere capstone to the episode, as a needle-drop to underscore the Serena-Trip, Jenny-Ambassador’s Kid, and Dan-Olivia couplings. Because they’re all “bad romances,” get it? I suppose my hopes of “Gossip Girl the musical, a satirical commentary on fame, glamour, and our society’s obsession with the shiny new thing, directed by Lady Gaga” were a bit too high.

At least the episode spurred someone to post this video of Gaga from her NYU days.