is a delicious not-too-guilty pleasure, a visual feast of couture and perfectly coiffed hair. The elite high-schoolers of New York's Upper East Side throw red-carpet parties, live in five-star hotels, and plot dastardly deeds against each other. Their actions are reported--and often exposed--by an omniscient presence known as Gossip Girl (voiced by Kristen Bell), an anonymous Web master who posts updates via her blog and text messages to the student body. Her primary target is the social circle of Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), best frenemies who lean on each other (save for the occasional throwdown). The show opens as Serena returns from a semester at boarding school, determined to put her hard-partying ways behind her. But she's chock full of secrets, one of which is that before her abrupt transfer she'd slept with Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford), Blair's boyfriend. In season one, Blair becomes embroiled in her own triangle between Nate and slimy womanizer Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick); the two guys also happen to be best friends. Serena, meanwhile, steps into a romance with studious Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), an aspiring writer on scholarship whose rocker dad (Matthew Settle) once dated Serena's gold-digging mom (Kelly Rutherford, Melrose Place
)--got all that?
Based on the teen novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, the show doesn't present any new ideas (the richer the parent, the worse the parenting, etc.), but the snappy dialogue and pop culture name-checking are perfectly delivered. Most intriguing are the power struggles to be "queen bee," a title Blair relishes, as Dan's freshman sister Jenny (Taylor Momsen, a.k.a. Cindy Lou Who from The Grinch) learns the hard way the price of joining her clique. While the high-school series of the '90s (Beverly Hills, 90210, Saved by the Bell) had the popular gang scolding each other for drug use and embracing nerds and outcasts alike--a well-intentioned but unrealistic premise--Gossip Girl, like The O.C. before it (both shows were created by Josh Schwartz) features grittier storylines with drugs and alcohol flowing freely in the background and the cliques making no apologies for snubbing anyone who doesn't summer in the Hamptons. Meester is the standout of the cast, with strong support from the rest, but if you're looking for teenage role models, these kids ain't it. For everyone else, to quote Gossip Girl's signature line, "You know you love me. XOXO." --Ellen A. Kim