Tuesday, September 02, 2008

These devils wear Prada

Here in L.A., where entertainment-related billboards turn streets into gaudy arcades, no current advertising campaign snags more eyeballs than CW's "Gossip Girl." The movie-screen posters are simple: Portraits of young hotties in steamy situations straight out of the Zalman King pornbook. The accompanying taglines, acting as come ons, are lifted from media reviews of the show: "Every Parent's nightmare" -- The Boston Herald; "Very Bad for you" -- The New York Post; "Mindblowingly inappropriate" -- The Parents Television Council. (I got a kick out of the jab at the PTC, the advocacy group that lobbies for TV censorship under the guise of protecting -- what else? -- the children.)

Though clearly not aimed at a 3osomething person, the ad campaigns almost persuaded me to tune into "Gossip Girl" tonight. Well, that and the presence of the not-unattractive star, Blake Lively. But I just couldn't pull the remote-control trigger. Fact is, even Robin Leach would be hard-pressed to care about a show about the lifestyles of the (young) rich and famous. Truth is, I've been thinking a lot lately about how today's youth-targeted television is worryingly smitten with materialism and wealth. From "My Super Sweet 16" to "The Hills" to "90120," we're supposed to care about protagonists who can afford to pour Verve Cliquot into their cereal and spread their toast with caviar. In the case of "Gossip Girl," the pretty teens face problems such as relationship squabbles, treacherous affairs, and the rise and fall of bitchy queen bees. Ooh, life is tough in The Hamptons.

The belated return of "90210" is a reminder that shows about the wealthy have long been with us. Why Aaron Spelling built an entire empire (and an indoor bowling alley in his mansion) on such fare. But in this golden era of television when so many shows boast smarter writing, bigger ideas, and story arcs as complex as an A.S. Byatt novel, is it too much to expect more substance than materialism from programs aimed at teens?

Obsession with wealth and its accoutrements are very much embedded in US culture, of course. That aspiration is apparent in every flash of diamand-carated bling that one sees on the fingers, wrists, and ears of inner-city youth. But how about a teen-oriented show about ordinary folks that seems more in touch with these times of Obama populism? How about a show about working-class people (and, no, I'm not calling for a return of "Married with Children"). After all, the greatest show in television history -- "The Wire" -- was so compelling precisely because it presented a multifaceted understanding of the underclass (both cops and street-corner drug dealers) and the very real difficulties they face. There's innate drama in the desperation of people who live from paycheck to paycheck.

Of course, defenders will doubtless claim that "Gossip Girl" shows that even money doesn't bring happiness. But I very much doubt that the creators of "The O.C." have given us "The Great Gatsby 2.0."

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