Dirty Sexy Money, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC. Five episodes into the first season.
Gossip Girl, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CW. Six episodes into the first season.
As Susan Sontag famously defined it, enjoyment of camp is detached, experienced in air quotes. True camp is gloriously, extravagantly, guilelessly superficial, which is what makes it such a delicious guilty pleasure.
Dirty Sexy Money and Gossip Girl have their moments, but neither reaches that level of glorious superficiality. I watch them, but I know in my heart that both are often merely stupid, rather than transcendently stupid, so, ironically, l end up feeling sheepish for enjoying such mediocre guilty pleasures. I’m doubly guilty, and not in a good way.
Both TV shows, new this season, deal with the rich and glamorous of New York City. Dirty Sexy Money follows the travails of the put-open, do-gooder lawyer for a single ridiculously wealthy family (sort of a hybrid of the Kennedys and the Hiltons), while Gossip Girl is a soap opera set among a clique of Upper East Side teenagers.
Of the two, Money has the edge, largely because its cast features actors with real talent. To his credit, Donald Sutherland has committed to his role as the family patriarch, Tripp Darling, and he elevates everyone around him, toying artfully with the absurdities of the stories and creating moments of pathos out of otherwise trite dialogue. Peter Krause has splendid comic timing, and when the writers stop trying to make his character—put-upon, do-gooder lawyer Nick George—into a pompous saint, he’s fabulously droll. Natalie Zea and Glenn Fitzgerald portray Karen and Brian, two of the adult Darling children, as hysterically obtuse and self-absorbed. Samaire Armstrong is almost too convincing as the sweet but air-headed pixie Juliet Darling, and Seth Gabel* manages to make geeky lack of direction look cute in Juliet’s twin, Jeremy.
Gossip Girl certainly has no one of Sutherland’s caliber, and during some episodes, I wonder whether any one of its young actors can even attain Armstrong’s goofy flair. The Gossip crew tends toward the sort of pouty performances in which confused and lustful and dejected and livid all look the same on their pretty little faces. The lead actresses, Blake Lively and Leighton Meester, are better than most of the others—they probably can express half a dozen emotions each—which makes the relationship between their characters, best friends/mortal enemies Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf, more fun that it ought to be. But other characters (particularly Blair’s boyfriend, Nate) are so wooden that they simply can’t hold my attention, even when their subplots involve Eyes Wide Shut–esque bacchanals and poker games with Russian con men.
Of course, Money has its share of soporific subplots, too. Nick’s dithering about whether he really wants to succeed his father as the Darlings’ lawyer is repetitive and dull, and his investigation into his father’s mysterious death (ostensibly the reason he accepted the job) proceeds at such a slow pace that it can’t generate any momentum. To my surprise, I’m more interested in some of the long-term plotlines on Gossip Girl. The hints that little freshman Jenny Humphrey could go All About Eve on queen bee Blair make me eager to see how her arc plays out.
Because it’s exactly that kind of unabashed melodrama that can make silly shows like these so much fun, especially when that melodrama goes down in such outsized, over-the-top worlds. And that brings me to reason number three to feel guilty about enjoying this inanity. On some level, both programs function as luxury porn, fodder for fantasies of brand-new, perfectly fitted wardrobes and limitless collections of designer handbags and life in a perfect Manhattan brownstone or maybe a suite overlooking the park. It’s not that those daydreams consume me, but when you live in New York and walk to work down Fifth Avenue every day—hell, if you live in the United States and so much as glance at a TV screen—it’s hard not to allow at least a corner of your imagination to run wild with what you might do if you were that obscenely rich.
They’re not great shows. I’m already tiring of Gossip Girl, and if Jenny doesn’t make her move soon, I’ll stop watching. I think I’ll hang on to Dirty Sexy Money a bit longer, though, especially now that it’s beginning to find its footing, presenting itself more as a farce than a morality play. And come on, in this past episode, a drunken, half-naked Jeremy Darling, celebrating his birthday with several hundred of his closest friends in a party on the Brooklyn Bridge, belted the classic power ballad “All By Myself” from the railing before breaking off and chirping, “Oh, here come the peace officers!” It might not be Sontag-certified campy goodness yet, but goofy gems like that scene give me hope that Dirty Sexy Money can get there.
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*Perhaps I should admit that I’ve long been fond of Seth Gabel for a terribly stupid reason. When I was in college, I visited New York for a long weekend, crashing in the NYU dormroom of a good friend from high school. One night, I made the spectacularly unwise decision to split a large pitcher of margaritas with him, despite the fact that so much as a whiff of alcohol makes me tipsy. I ended up passed out in his absent roommate’s bed, and that’s where my friend left me when he had to go to work the next morning. Hours later, I woke to find some guy peering over me in confusion and mild annoyance, and through the fog of my skull-splitting hangover, I realized this must be my friend’s roommate. I tried to stammer out explanations and apologies, but the guy, backlit against the blinding overhead light, just shushed me and told me to go back to sleep. So I did, deliriously grateful to my hangover savior for taking pity on me and granting me absolution after a night of far too much tequila. That savior, of course, was Seth Gabel (or Seth Cosentino, as he was known at the time). I never officially met him, never had a real conversation with him, and have no idea what kind of person he is, but I go out of my way to watch any random TV show on which he appears. Pathetic but true: If you do me a small kindness when I’m hungover, I’ll be your fan for life—and that’s yet another reason for me to feel guilty about Dirty Sexy Money.