It's been a heart-wrenching month for fans of the CW Network's sexily subversive drama Gossip Girl while TV's hottest show took a brief hiatus. But now Blair, Serena, Chuck Bass and Co. are back — and on the cover of the new issue of Rolling Stone. To get the dirt on what it's like starring as beautiful young people in New York while being beautiful young people in New York, Jason Gay hung out with the cast on set and after hours, tagging along to their favorite drinking haunts — where the beverage of choice is the potent Golden Monkey — and catching the action as the show filmed on the streets of the Big Apple. (Get up close and personal with the crew for yourself with our exclusive footage from Terry Richardson's steamy shoot, above, plus exclusive photos from the session.)
"The outdoor sets were pretty fun, because the fans come out," Gay says. "There were many kids from local private schools, foreign tourists and tons of paparazzi. It's very strange to see a mob of paparazzi photograph Blake and Leighton in character as they film an outdoor scene. It's as if the reality of the show exists behind two lenses — in real time and TV time. All the actors enjoy the outside stuff because of the fans, too. It's like playing on stage or something. More energy, more excitement and the sense that anything could happen. And sometimes it does. There is no such thing as a closed set in NYC!"
Despite barely scraping together 3 million viewers a week, the show has become the most talked-about, culturally relevant series on television. "It's not a conventional TV hit in terms of viewership. Its numbers are low and it loses to stuff like The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a far more wholesome show that runs on cable," Gay says. "But in terms of having a 'moment,' however you want to define it, GG definitely is having one. It will be very interesting to see if the show grows, or remains a clubby, small hit. Teen shows seldom have long runs — and I don't get the feeling this will turn into ER. But it seems to be here to stay as long as the principals involved want to keep doing it."
Part of the show's appeal is its authenticity. "The show is sharp and connected to modern life, references, music and so on. Gossip Girl doesn't feel like something that got drummed up in some network focus group by 55-year-old white dudes," Gay explains. "No one's going to accuse Gossip Girl of being The Wire or Mad Men, but if you roll with the fantasy/absurdity, it's fun to watch, from the infighting to the insane clothes and snappy dialogue."
Right now, the stars who bring those tart lines to life — Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Ed Westwick, Chace Crawford, Penn Badgley — somehow haven't let fame go to their heads, according to Gay. "They've all reached the point where they're in the public eye, but they're not rolling around in blacked-out SUVs or being chased around like Madonna. A lot of them take the subway and they still complain about the price of rents and monthly car parking," Gay reveals. "They're in a nice place in their careers. They're now recognizable enough to get interest for other things, but not so recognizable that daily life is a drag."
Though he's now a Gossip guru, Gay admits, "I didn't jump on the bandwagon immediately. But by the end of the first season, I was getting so annoyed with the fuss I had to check it out." So what's his favorite Gossip Girl moment? "The scene in the 'Non-Judging Breakfast Club' episode where Blair, Chuck and Nate rally behind Serena after she confesses about her wild night with Georgina. Nate and Blair then confess regrettable things they've done, and when Blair asks Chuck to contribute, he just says, 'I'm Chuck Bass,' " Gay says. "It's the kind of thing that if you watched the show for the first time, it would mean nothing to do you, but if you're a fan, you're dying. I think that's one of the shrewder things about Gossip Girl — it does reward its loyal viewers."
For much more on Gossip Girl, including whether stars Leighton Meester and Blake Lively are really friends and the lowdown on partying with the Gossip Guys, check out the new issue of Rolling Stone out now, as well as these galleries:
• Gossip Girl: The Steamy Rolling Stone Cover Shoot With Terry Richardson
• The Hottest RS TV Covers of All Time
• Rolling Stone's Hottest Covers: From Britney Spears and Cindy Crawford to Matt Dillon and Justin Timberlake