It's back to the Upper East Side of Manhattan for another season of snarky rich people and their social anxieties. With high school behind them, the writers push their young cast in new and interesting directions, offering opportunities for character growth and advancement, and the changes make for a surprisingly solid and cohesive season, with all the twists and turns you've come to expect from the series.
While Blair (Leighton Meester) and Dan (Penn Badgley) head off for the next phase of their lives at NYU, Serena (Blake Lively) decides she isn't ready for college and withdraws from Brown. While this doesn't go over well with her mother Lily (Kelly Rutherford), it does allow the character to move into a profession for the first time, and she finds herself in public relations. Lively handles the maturation of the character very well, becoming a capable and level-headed professional in a world that's more often defined by less-than-desirable personality traits. It's encouraging to see that the moral grounding she's shown throughout remains a pillar of her young adulthood, no matter what her ultimate future will bring.
While Serena is moving forward, Blair is finding the adjustment of no longer being the Queen Bee one she's not as able to handle as she might have hoped. She expected to be the Queen at NYU, but instead finds herself just another face in the crowd. Blair remains an enigma as a character, as it's easy to dislike her shallow obsessions with social status and money, but then she comes through at key moments for her friends, and Serena in particular.
When Blair's not suffering through her own identity crisis, she's trying to stand by Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) as he struggles to redefine himself outside of his father's image, and his own checkered past. It's an intriguing transformation for the character, and one that looks to continue into the fourth season. Westwick continues to give some of the most unique line deliveries on television, making Chuck Bass a fascinating individual every time he's on the screen. It's never quite clear what he believes, or how much of what he says can be believed, but his love for Blair seems surprisingly consistent.
The majority of Blair's early journey in the season revolves around her obsession with setting up Jenny (Taylor Momsen) as the new Alpha Female at her former school. She inadvertently creates a monster even Georgina (Michelle Trachtenberg) would fear. Speaking of which, Georgina creates her usual hornet's nest of drama in the early episodes, and then abruptly vanishes in one of the most awkward character-departure scenes ever written, leaving a psychotic-bitch-sized hole that Jenny apparently decides she can fill. It's a frustrating but intriguing arc for the character that runs through most of the season, just in time for Georgina to swoop back in with another bombshell to start turning lives upside down. Trachtenberg is so convincing in this role, it almost makes you wish she were more involved in the series, while at the same time doubting that you or the show could handle that much of Georgina's particular charms.
Her machinations begin to impact the burgeoning feelings that Dan and Vanessa (Jessica Szohr) are finally starting to acknowledge, with a very college-style push from recurring guest star Hilary Duff. Duff turns in a memorable and comparatively mature performance, considering her Disney past, and certainly creates one of the most memorable scenes of the season, alongside Dan and Vanessa. The journey of these two friends into a more mature and complex relationship is one of the more emotionally satisfying ones on the show, as they seem the most grounded in a relatable reality. Their struggles, jealousies, and concerns feel more true than some of the nonsense the other rich kids treat like their own Middle East Crisis
Jenny's meddling doesn't stop with the younger set, as she even gets involved in stirring up trouble in the union of Lily and her own father, Rufus (Matthew Settle). Their relationship moves through several evolutionary stages throughout the season, from the happy joys of a wedding-that-almost-wasn't to the near dissolution of that union based on mistrust and secrets. William Baldwin appears as Serena and Eric's father and stirs up all kinds of chaos in the household, as Lily faces a potentially serious health crisis and the kids are torn over which father-figure to align with and trust. Eric (Connor Paolo) doesn't have a lot to do this season, but he shines in these latter episodes, both in how he deals with the familial crisis, and in his relationship throughout the season with Jenny.
If transition is the theme of the first part of the season, love and relationships come to define the latter half, with Jenny having a difficult and life-changing relationship of her own that shows the softer, more vulnerable side fans might have forgotten used to be a signature of her personality. Both Serena and Blair see their relationships reach a crisis point, with two very different outcomes, all leading up to an impromptu trip to Paris in the finale and an explosive climax for one member of the cast. Everything juicy you've come to expect from Gossip Girl, who just continues stirring the pot of their young lives.
With no weak performances in the cast, and consistent writing throughout the season, it's a bit of a surprise that the show suffered a ratings decline this year. I thought the emotional weight needed during some of the season's heavier moments was handled very well by some of the younger actors. Taylor Momsen did particularly well with a role that could easily have become a caricature of Blair's character, with a dash of Georgina.
For a season of such big changes in the direction of the show, the extras portion of the DVD set is surprisingly lean. There are a couple of special Gossip Girl video cuts to some songs featured in the season, including Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" performance from a mid-season episode. The other video, which features cut-scenes from the featured episode, is Plasticines' "Bitch."
There is an extended "XO" cut of the episode "The Empire Strikes Jack." Interspliced with more than 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews, it's a clever way to break down an episode by scene and take a deeper look at all the thought and care that go into making the 42-minute final cut.
The stand-alone feature "A Gossip Girl Fabulous Affair," is a mixture of a look at how all the decadent Gossip Girl parties are created for the show, and a how-to guide for young party planners who want to recreate the magic of the show, but maybe don't have the Bass family fortune to dip into. Throw in the expected gag reel, and that's all she wrote.
There were opportunities to explore how the cast feels about the changes in the sets and directions of their characters feel, and how they enjoy moving beyond high school, even if it's just with some commentary on some of these episodes. Even the "Fabulous Affair" feature is more about the series as a whole, and a how-to guide for fans, rather than a deeper look into the third season in particular. Fans of the show will love the presentation, but fans looking for more to enhance their Gossip Girl experience may feel a little empty-handed.