TV on DVD: Gossip Girl: Season 2 (2008-2009)

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Despite airing on opposite nights, on opposite networks and most likely being geared to completely opposite audiences, since the premiere of Gossip Girl back in 2007, a second show centering on Manhattan's privileged pretty people has been offering the same escapist guilty pleasure vibe that this Girl delivers every Monday night.

Yet now with ABC's cancellation of the sudsy and addictive Dirty Sexy Money, CW's hit series Gossip Girl, which impressively attracted a 43% jump in ratings for women in the 18-34 year old bracket in its second season is poised to soon reach an even greater audience as the far more alluring sexy soap about those with and without money (some of which is dirty).

Despite this, admittedly I worry that the series will struggle with the same Desperate Housewives trap of creating far too many subplots as the prior season ended with many of the main ensemble's Upper East Siders planning to head off to universities and we risk losing the same electricity the show had when they were all conceivably sharing screen time amidst wicked scandals, love affairs, and confrontations.

However the series, originally and now loosely based on the books by author Cecily von Zeigesar has always struggled with its first few episodes of a new season, which was particularly evidenced in this one but if the second season is any indication Gossip could become CW's new Queen Bee. Yet, last Fall, it was a different story when we were first led into the end of summer that was set a few months following the wedding of Bart and Lily Bass which had concluded the end of the debut season.

Filled with contrived plots involving new summer love and Dan (Penn Badgley) turning into a hipster bookstore "Casanova" while Nate (Chace Crawford) embarked on an scandalous secret affair with an older woman, initially I feared that the Girl had evolved past the “freshman ten” (where instead of pounds, we had ten "couldn't care less plots") and into the “sophomore slump.” However, it quickly turned around when surprise revelations were discovered and the show's talented writers produced one must-see episode after the next.

Obviously, with a majority of the characters-- aside from Dan's sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen) and Serena's brother Eric (Connor Paolo)-- embarking on senior year, predictably the college craze begin as the ensemble all try to land coveted spots in Ivy League universities such as Blair's dream of Yale which leads to a domino effect when she moves from its biggest cheerleader to its biggest outcast. While Blair's wicked schemes come crashing down repeatedly, in a well-earned and refreshing change of pace, we see her softer side as her favorite sparring partner and best romantic match Chuck experiences a devastating tragedy and she tries to prevent him from alienating everyone.

Also by providing Blair with great comedic potential with the arrival of Wallace Shawn as a new stepfather, it's the wide range actress Leighton Meester can play that I feel makes her the strongest asset to the series. She's best utilized when working against or alongside Chuck (Ed Westwick) and especially after the mid-season mark in this set. More than just up to their usual tricks, even when Chuck pushes those he cares about away after he hits rock bottom, Blair is the one who consistently tries to be there for him as his makeshift family that he desperately needs. But when neither one is willing to go out on a limb in facing their true feelings it leads to some unexpected break-ups, make-ups, and hook-ups as the season continues to reveal one more twist after the next.

While in the first season, Jenny Humphrey seemed to be the girl most likely to become the next Blair Waldorf as a Queen Bee in training, this season she asserts her independence when she becomes so serious about her fashion designs that she drops out of school, crashes with one of Eleanor Waldorf's models, and tries to get legally emancipated from her father Rufus to start her own clothing line.

Meanwhile although it seems that Jenny has taken a cue from the playbook of Dan's free-spirited friend Vanessa (Jessica Szohr), Vanessa and Jenny get a temporary personality switch when both begin falling for Nate Archibald and engage in cheap tactics to sabotage one another. Vanessa, who was never a series favorite of mine in the first season as she was originally brought in to just throw a wrench into Dan and Serena's dull-as-drywall on again/off again romance, gets some plotlines of her own.

However, there's still a major "likability" hurdle the character needs to overcome as she's much more devious than meets the eye yet unlike the show's great villain and (at times) antihero Chuck Bass, she's painted as the accidental victim turned villain and is therefore slightly more juvenile than one would expect her “worldly” character to be. Yet, it's quite intriguing to watch what happens when she and Chuck form an alliance to drive a wedge between Nate and Blair as the season progresses.

However, despite the all-American beauty and girl next door quality of Blake Lively and the popularity of her main character Serena, she's only given a great plot arc in the final episodes. And when you couple Serena with her "sometimes" boyfriend Dan (played by her real-life boyfriend Penn Badgley), sadly this season the two characters became Gossip Girl's weakest links. Moreover in the second season it becomes far more obvious than it was in the first as they frequently wear on your nerves in some cardboard cutout plot points involving open relationships, the ethics of writing thinly disguised work fiction based on a classmate's painful memories, and an affair with a hot teacher.

Likewise the two pale in comparison to not just the show's ultimate scene stealers of Blair and Chuck as both Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick have delicious material to work with in the second season but especially the far more fascinating dynamic and complex history of their parents' relationship via Dan's dad Rufus (Matthew Settle) and Serena's mom Lily (Kelly Rutherford).

In the premiere season, Dan and Serena seemed to be repeating some of the joys and mistakes of the relationship the two adults had shared when they were in their youth. Furthermore, it's one we see in a flashback episode starring Brittany Snow as a young '80s era Lily that was rumored to have been a trial run to a now most likely dead spin-off about Lily and Rufus. However in the most recent season, the past creeps back into the present when Rufus is shocked to learn about a massive secret Lily had kept from him and the two attempt to discover if time has finally made them right for each other and if they can be together after all that's happened.

Overall, it's a jam-packed season where relatives come out of the woodwork, a main character dies, and an old favorite supporting one returns briefly. And more importantly because we're equally if not more drawn into the adult love story than the teenage one mirroring Rufus and Lily, it explains why older fans started tuning in with greater frequency.

And aside from an immensely talented cast, gorgeous production design and breathtaking use of New York locations that pop on one of the most impressive DVD transfers in memory, much of the show's credit is owed to the clever behind-the-scenes team of producers, writers and directors who were and are responsible for other shows that manage(d) to blend different age groups and high quality plot development together in series like Chuck, The O.C., and Gilmore Girls.

Although the decision to pass on the spin-off Valley Girls is understandable, because the Rufus and Lily storyline is far stronger than the romantic plot of their children, I'm hopeful that they'll utilize flashbacks more and more to ensure they keep relating to viewers of ages well beyond the text generation represented on the show who live and die by the latest “blasts” from the still undiscovered Gossip Girl voiced by Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars).

Unlike some of the recent TV on DVD and TV on Blu-ray releases that have arrived without inserts or just a vague title list of the episodes contained therein, the set for Gossip Girl is designed to be as fashionable of an accessory as the couture on display in the show. To this end, it contains a full color insert filling the back cover of the DVD art that catches the eye along with a high-resolution photo filled DVD box sized booklet that guides you through the contents of all seven discs with mini episode guides.

And sure enough, the booklet corresponds with the disc menus as well which also boast descriptions to ensure you can track down your favorite moments or play catch-up faster. With the inclusion of seven discs, you're bound to worry about space and scratches but Gossip arrived in a nice slim packaged yet sturdy hard box outer shell that thankfully doesn't risk damaging the DVDs by having you remove one that's on top of another one, thereby taking them out far more often than necessary like some other poorly packaged setups.

For a limited time-- as was the case in my review set from WB-- the collection also boasts an exclusive excerpt of Cecily von Ziegesar's next installment in the New York Times bestselling Gossip Girl book series, titled I Will Always Love You which will release as a hardcover novel on November 3, 2009. Additionally it includes the download-ready audio book of the title that started it all-- Gossip Girl: You Know You Love Me-- which is read by actress Christina Ricci.

However, the final disc in the set will be of particular interest to not only older fans but those fascinated by the show's usage of New York with worthwhile and informative featurettes as it celebrates Gossip's commitment to the city and its artists who come together to ensure the show offers viewers a fresh look at New York.

Granted, Blu-ray owners will wonder if/when and why an HD edition of the show wasn't made available to fans along with this release. However as a Blu-ray owner who screened Gossip Girl off and on amidst other Blu-ray releases and DVDs, honestly and much to my surprise when played right after an HD title, the beauty contained throughout the widescreen enhanced series with Dolby Digital sound was far clearer than some cinematic titles I was reviewing. Likewise, it looked amazing when given the upconvert on the Blu-ray player.

Offering much more sophistication and intricately laced plots than its previous season which spent far too much time with cheesy Audrey Hepburn inspired fantasy openers, Serena's secret and her relationship with Dan, Gossip Girl's second season continued to be worthy of its "you know you love me; xoxo" sign off. Likewise, it not only managed to become stronger with each successive week but as the writing grew more confident by juggling corporate takeovers with a search for a long lost child, Gossip Girl started to challenge shows one usually finds when moving into the Emmy bait territory offered by our basic cable networks.

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