Jews, Reality and ‘Gossip Girl’
This year, Gossip Girl introduced at least four new Jewish characters: Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Isaac Mizrahi and Rachel Zoe. There is also the unseen character, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose trans fat ban and restaurant calorie count are presumably what keeps the cast of the show lithe enough to fit into their increasingly ridiculous outfits.
The fact that this sounds suspiciously like the New York we live in — if not the New York we ever get to see — is the biggest problem facing Gossip Girl right now. Since 2007, the show has chronicled the romantic vicissitudes of a group of Upper East Side teenagers and the eponymous gossip website that fuels their jealousies. The characters started out in high school, but they’ve since matriculated to NYU and Columbia, where they regularly threaten to engage in dangerous liaisons with the faculty. While summarizing Gossip Girl’s dizzying number of plots is impossible, the average storyline looks something like this: Couple A is threatened by Intrigue A but survives to reach Intrigue B. They dissolve and separately form couples B and C. Eventually Intrigue C results in the re-constellation of Couple A.
For over a year Gossip Girl was filled with Jewish characters and Jewish storylines (Intermarriage! Passover!), but now they’ve all disappeared. The only Jews still on the show are real people making cameos, which is problematic because the last thing anyone wants from Gossip Girl is a reminder of reality. Gossip Girl is a universe where teenagers can banish other teenagers from the city and reasonably expect that their excommunication will be enforced; the last thing we need is to see New York Observer owner Jared Kushner and to start wondering why his newspaper hasn’t ruthlessly crushed the characters’ social climbing.
If anything, however, the Jewish characters have always amounted to an unfortunate intrusion of reality into Gossip Girl’s fictional world. They were people who actually seemed to care about the feelings of others and who wanted to resolve their conflicts without resorting to revealing embarrassing secrets on a blog. Even the much detested Aaron Rose (John Patrick Amedori), was too believable, refusing to drop everything and fall in love with Serena (Blake Lively) the moment he met her. They had to write him off the show; for all of its frequent love triangles and partner swapping, Gossip Girl expects that everyone will always be in a committed monogamous relationship.
And it was Jewish reality that, sadly, ruined the Passover episode. While the principal cast was busy balancing lies, secrets, and pretending not to be the waiters, the show’s principle Jews were trying — and failing — to have a Seder. The episode even starts out with Blair (Leighton Meester) bragging to her stepfather Cyrus (Wallace Shawn) about her new-old boyfriend, and the society functions they attend, with Cyrus barely able to feign interest as he chops carrots for dinner. The only thing he’s worried about is Passover. It’s good that he’s currently off the show, since every time I see him I can barely resist shouting “Conceivable!” at my TV. His presence points to the fact that there are other things (like God and brisket) that matter, even within the show’s universe.
Which needn’t be the case. Gossip Girl takes place on a mythic Upper East Side, where the walls of gentility have never been breached, and the goings-on of its high school scions is the leading news of the day. Just as we aren’t upset when John Cheever’s swimmer fails to encounter a Jewish family in Westchester, or when the gentiles in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story fail to rise above the level of archetypes and plot devices, we shouldn’t worry about the fact that Gossip Girl is largely devoid of Jews. The show needs to stay as far away as possible from verisimilitude in order to be enjoyable.
Gossip Girl still features many of the guilty pleasures that made it fun in the first place: Blake Lively’s name is still an adverb, and the breathless opening credits still rip off the “Maybe it’s Maybeline” commercials. But it needs to leave our New York. As long as Gossip Girl tries to incorporate the financial crisis, religion, or other elements of the real, we won’t be able to suspend our disbelief, and we’ll worry instead whether it is mimetic enough. So if Gossip Girl is going to continue running around Columbia, it should resist having Orthodox students wandering its campus. Pretend Columbia is on the Upper East Side (or better yet, Greenwich), and leave the Jews to their similarly mythic West.