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by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Gossip Girl vs. 90210 & r & & r & (CW, Mondays, 8 pm, CW, Tuesdays, 8 pm) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's easy to lump Gossip Girl, last year's hot-as-hell teen drama, in with 90210, this year's (and also 1990's) hot-as-hell teen drama. They both portray the highest of high society, chronicling hopelessly rich prep school kids and their mostly horrid parents. Having never had to deal with mundane struggles like how to find money for school clothes, the characters pass the time with soap opera clich & eacute;s like being overly dramatic and engaging in backstabbing as a form of foreplay.





Both shows give us an entr & eacute;e into this exclusive world in the form of one poor family. A middling ex-rock star and his two adorable children in the case of Gossip Girl and a sensitive-but-firm principal and his two adorable children in the case of 90210.





But the similarities end with the setup, though, and the differences illustrate how subtle variations in tone can mean the difference between a melodramatic primetime mess and light (really light) cultural critique.





I won't bother much with the former -- 90210 is proving to be a middling soap opera -- other than to say that having Jenny Garth and the old dude from the Peach Pit back as satellite characters points to a deeper rooting in the cattiness of '90s melodrama.





Gossip Girl has the drama, but (usually) leaves off the melo- by undercutting its more indulgent moments and by crafting real-ish characters. In lesser teen dramas, the young characters act like their parents. In Gossip Girl, we get a sense of internal conflict. These kids might be behaving badly. And in the case of Blair Waldorf, who acts very much like her mother, she does so because she hasn't or cannot break out from the woman's shadow.





Gossip Girl is good at taking the various arche- (or perhaps stereo-) types of growing up and then making them grandiose: huge, opulent and ridiculous. Then it points out the absurdity of the opulence and ridiculousness -- sometimes in ways as subtle as the score doing Chaplin-esque mickey-mousing of events onscreen. Then, at its absolute best, Gossip Girl goes one step further, suggesting that it isn't just the wealth and leisure that makes these kids absurd, but the actions themselves. Their sheer teen-ish-ness is equally preposterous.





The ridiculousness of the teen years is something that anyone -- even teens -- feel on a deep level. It's too smart for its genre but smart enough for its audience. Gossip Girl isn't a guilty pleasure, it's just a pleasure.





TiVo-Worthy





Dexter / Californication


If there's ever been a better night for lovers of high-functioning sociopaths, we can't think of one. Dexter's third season welcomes Jimmy Smits as an assistant district attorney and brother of an innocent man whom Dexter mistakenly kills. Meanwhile, Californication's Hank Moody (David Duchovny) finds himself once again with the woman of his dreams and mother of his child. But monogamy is proving difficult. (Showtime, premieres Sunday, 9/28, 9 pm and 10 pm)





Life


True to its title, Life survived to see a second season. The premise is solid: Cop is jailed for a crime he did not commit, he gets out and gets his job back. Starring Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers), this one plays both Mondays and Fridays for two weeks before settling into its regular Friday night slot. (NBC, premieres Monday, 9/29, 10 pm)





Pushing Daisies


One of my favorite new shows last year, the whimsically subversive Pushing Daisies was tragically strike-shortened (airing only nine of 22 episodes). Season Two finds the P.I., the guy who can bring people back from the dead, and the girl whom he brought back doing silly things like going undercover in a convent. (ABC, premieres Wednesday, 10/1, 8 pm)

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