At around 3 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 17, things were looking a little dicey for the cast and crew of the new and much-buzzed-over CW show Gossip Girl. It was a typical suffocating humid August afternoon in Central Park, just up the steps from the Bethesda Fountain, and the day’s schedule was running a little late. Thunderclouds were gathering ominously overhead—a production assistant ran back and forth to the producer and director to report the status of the approaching storm—and a sound check from SummerStage boomed, drowning out the dialogue being recorded. Curious tourists flashed pictures (prompting a harried-looking crew member to plead, “No flashes, please. It ruins our film”); bored-looking kids milled about and did jumping jacks trying to catch the camera’s eye; a banker-y fella with his loafers off pretended to read the Financial Times while gawking at the bright lights; and a tiny bride—fully decked out in lace and veil—sat alone on a nearby rail, watching intently.
It’s unlikely that any of these observers realized that they were watching a scene from what is sure to be a monstrous, prepare-yourself-for-an-all-things-Gossip-Girl-blitz megahit this fall. From the frighteningly fertile young mind of The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, 31, and fellow O.C. writer-producer Stephanie Savage (who places her age as “older than Josh”), Gossip Girl, which will premiere on September 19 after eternal-sensation America’s Next Top Model, has all the same elements that made The O.C. must-see TV: a young, attractive cast of as-yet mostly unknowns, a unique universe of privilege, wealth, social-striving and exclusivity (trading the sandy shores of Orange County for the limestone-and-Town-Cars enclave of the Upper East Side), a pounding musical score of of-the-moment music—Justin Timberlake, Amy Winehouse, Peter, Bjorn and John, and Lily Allen—and campy over-the-top drama involving sex, scandal and betrayal, all set in the inherent tragedy of private high schools. (For those who don’t have teenage girls in the house, the show is based on the best-selling series by Cecily von Ziegesar.)
“The Upper East Side is its own strange world,” said Mr. Schwartz, via phone with Ms. Savage from Los Angeles last week. “I probably knew a little bit more about this world than I did about Orange County. It’s a world you really have to be born into to understand. It’s one of the challenges we had in adapting the book. How do you take a world that feels so exclusive and open it up so that even if you’re not from that world, you still understand it?”
GOSSIP GIRL IS NARRATED BY, well, Gossip Girl (voiced by Veronica Mars’ Kristin Bell), who keeps an anonymous blog (called, you got it, Gossip Girl) that reports on all the doings of the city’s privately schooled elite. Of most interest in that mysterious ironclad caste system are the chosen golden few that hold the attention of everyone else. Their every move is deemed worthy of a post or instant text message. (For some celebrity Web-stalker types, this trope is painfully familiar!) The pilot, penned by Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Savage, opens with former queen bee Serena van der Woodsen, that effortlessly beautiful and popular blonde, returning from a year away at boarding school. As Serena (played by The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ Blake Lively) strides through Grand Central Terminal, text messages instantly start pinging with Serena sightings all over the Upper East Side. It’s a new reality for viewers only a decade or so older than the main characters. “In the pilot of The O.C. Ryan is on a pay phone,” laughed Mr. Schwartz. “I don’t think any of our kids know how a pay phone even works. You might as well be inscribing on a stone tablet.”
The show takes some of the typical issues of high school—the backstabbing best friend, the pretty freshman girl who gets plied with liquor and taken advantage of by an upper-classman, the friction between angst-filled teenagers and parents dealing with divorce—and places them in a universe inhabited by a privileged few. The heady combination of the familiar mixed with the lusted-after moneyed unknown is intoxicating, fantastical and utterly riveting (helped along by the razor-sharp and almost absurd dialogue that made Mr. Schwartz famous: “You’ll never be more beautiful or thin or happy than you are right now. I just want you to make the most of it,” says one of the Gossip Girl’s mothers. A school dance demands couture; an after-school snack is a rustled up, off-menu grilled cheese with truffle oil. Parents are just as beautiful as their children, even if their private lives are elegant disasters. (“So my dad left her for another man,” shrugs one character. “She lost 15 pounds and got an eye-lift. It’s good for her.”) Instead of sneaking beers, the kids of Gossip Girl drink martinis at the New York Palace Hotel bar, like when Serena (who is living there while her town house is being renovated) and former bestie-turned-nemesis Blair meet to attempt a rapprochement (“I miss you. I just want things to go back the way they used to be. You know: walking to school together, dancing on tables at Bungalow, night-swimming at your mom’s country house”). Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Ms. Savage said, was an inspiration for the lush look and feel of the show.