Over a six-season run that ends Monday, "Gossip Girl" was a teen drama known for its love triangles, scandalous affairs, OMG moments, and lots of very bad behavior by very rich people.
It also became a prime example of how a little show can make a big splash in today's fragmented TV landscape.
Despite what you may have heard, "Gossip Girl" was never a huge hit. Not even close. At least not in the way we typically measure big hits -- via audience size and mass popularity.
The series, in fact, drew an average audience of only 2.4 million in its first season on The CW and ranked 150th out of television's prime-time shows. For comparison's sake, "American Idol" that season (2007) averaged more than 30 million viewers. Now, that's a hit. (Incidentally, the "Gossip Girl" audience this season has fallen to under 1 million.)
Had "Gossip Girl" aired on any broadcast network other than The CW, its fans wouldn't be spending this week looking forward to an apparent wedding between Blair (Leighton Meester) and Chuck (Ed Westwick) and the long-awaited revelation of mysterious blogger Gossip Girl's identity. That's because the show would have been killed off in a matter of weeks.
But The CW was and is a niche network that, like many cable channels, is able to make due with smaller audiences. What would be a bottom-feeding series somewhere else can be a big fish there.
Moreover, it's significant that "Gossip Girl" came along when the still-fledgling CW was struggling to fend off extinction. The network was desperate for a show -- any show -- that could build some buzz. A show that could define its brand.
"Gossip Girl" was that show -- a new-media offering that fed off a kind of hype that far exceeded its ratings and managed to achieve substantial pop cultural cachet despite its lack of vast mainstream appeal. How? Here are a few factors:
That's basically why a very lightly watched show was able to land its attractive stars on so many magazine covers and why those stars -- mostly notably Serena's Blake Lively -- soared to fame. And that's why the show lived long enough to be honored with a fawning retrospective Monday night and leave its fans with a heartfelt XOXO.
A STUDY IN CONTRASTS: In an interesting bit of timing, Vanity Fair has devoted a chunk of its latest issue to "Freaks and Geeks," a teen drama (or dramedy) that preceded "Gossip Girl" by eight years. "Freaks" not only took a very different approach to the depiction of its young characters, but traversed a much rockier TV path.
Whereas "Gossip Girl" focused on beautiful, privileged prep-schoolers leading luxury lifestyles, "Freaks and Geeks" trained its eye on those at the bottom of the high school food chain and did so with the kind of emotional complexity and biting humor rarely found in teen shows. TV critics generally heaped scorn on "Girl"and absolutely loved "Freaks." I, for one, consider "Freaks and Geeks" to be TV's best-ever teen drama.
"Freaks and Geeks" averaged 6.77 million viewers in its first (and last) season -- about triple the first-year audience of "Gossip Girl." But it had the misfortune of airing on NBC, a major network that, at the time, featured a lot of much bigger shows. "Freaks" produced only 18 episodes, compared to 121 for "Gossip Girl," and undoubtedly had even fewer magazine covers.
But while "Gossip Girl" enjoyed a lot of early buzz, only to go out with a relative whimper, "Freaks" has had a remarkable afterlife. Thanks to reruns, DVDs and Netflix, millions of new fans have experienced it. Meanwhile, its executive producer (Judd Apatow), and many of its cast members, including James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, have gone on to big things. (Vanity Fair reunited the cast for a photo shoot and interviews).
"Freaks and Geeks" now is regarded as a television treasure, having landed on a number of best-of lists and being deemed by AOL TV as The Best School Show of All Time. Will "Gossip Girl" be recalled in such loving terms a dozen years from now? Probably not.
LOCAL SPORTS DOCUMENTARY: If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend "The Last Barrier," an hourlong documentary that examines the challenges gay athletes face in professional sports. The program debuted last weekend, but re-airs at 7 p.m. Thursday and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 17, on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
"The Last Barrier" is hosted by Dave Feldman, Ray Ratto and former Oakland A's infielder Shooty Babitt. The latter was a teammate of the late Glenn Burke, the first openly gay major leaguer to come out post-career. They discuss the stigma that still exists and why no athlete involved in major team sports has come out during their playing days.
"I think we're at a point of time in our society where I think it's inevitable. That step will be taken," says Warriors president and chief operating officer Rick Welts, one of several pro sports figures interviewed in the documentary. " ... But it'll be a tremendously courageous thing for a pro athlete, especially if they are at the peak of their career, to take that step."
PUTTING SOME HOP IN THE HOLIDAYS: This time of year, TV is filled with animated specials that have been around for decades. But what about the new stuff?
On Friday, there's "Peter Rabbit's Christmas Tale" (7 p.m., Nickelodeon). Aimed mainly at preschoolers, it's a fresh re-imagining of the classic Beatrix Potter books that has Peter and his pal, Benjamin Bunny, braving a blizzard in order to deliver important gifts and supplies to the residents of England's the Lake District.
Contact Chuck Barney at email@example.com. Read his TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at http://twitter.com/chuckbarney, and Facebook at www.facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.ChuckBarney.
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: The CW