Gossip Girl Thailand: Floating world of imaginary hi-sos

The Thai remake of Gossip Girl with almost zero localization and adaptation to the Thai context creates a whole new class of people that seem too ridiculous to exist in Bangkok and could even be viewed as an unintentional parody. However, if the show capitalizes on accurately portraying an upper vs. middle class conflict an interesting drama could unfold. 
 
Produced by Kantana, the same company that produced the computer animated film Khan Kluay, Gossip Girl Thailand is the third local adaptation worldwide to be made of the US series that ran from 2007-2012. The pilot episode was launched Thursday 16 July. 
 
Like a fancy likay, but with bad lighting
 
What occurred to me, as I am sure it did to many viewers, was that when the small bouts of naturalism ran out, the viewer has no choice but to laugh. 
 
Cindy Burbridge as Serena’s mom expresses what most of the audience is probably feeling. 
 
The original US version suspended our disbelief, what with the rich heiress living in a hotel and having spats and sex with other heirs and heiresses. But this version is different, in that it tries so much harder to create this surreal, floating world of people richer than us.
 
On this cloud floating somewhere around Thonglor, we are expected to believe that there are heiresses who need a hotel magnate’s son to get them a specially-made sandwich from the kitchen, since she drank martinis on an empty stomach all day. Thai International schools are full of kids so rich who constantly try to one-up each other all day through wealth and boyfriends, and force the “poorer” middle class classmates to write invitation cards to their fancy parties. 
 
The audience is also constantly bombarded with reminders that the people we are viewing are rich as hell. Blair’s mom says that her daughter should’ve reminded her to tell the “servants” to fix her dress for her. Serena’s mom name-drops to her own daughter about their personal chef, their grandmother who has the royal title Mom, and that their aunt Rose has a house in Khao Yai all in the same short scene. Goddammit, you guys are rich. I get it. 
 
So far, it’s nothing out of the ordinary insofar as we’re talking about a drama about rich people. I mean, Jukk is wearing a scarf in Bangkok, but he’s probably in air con all day. The setting takes place in bland outdoor spaces or dim indoor ones, but to be fair Bangkok’s cityscape isn’t exactly like Upper East Side. Fine. 
 
Still, Gossip Girl Thailand has a certain quality that makes it like a rehearsed, likay performance. Like likay, the costumes are pretty to look at, but unlike likay, they’re covered with saturating filters and dark club lighting. (Both have stilted dialogue, but only one is poetic.) 
 
The surreality of creating this cloud world is increased by other factors as well. Sabina Meisinger awkwardly attempts to walk and talk and even turn her head exactly like Blake Lively. The music was probably chosen in a rush, and the cinematography results in blurred heads in the foreground blocking principal characters. 
 
In short, the lighting and cinematography kill what should be left as the strength of this adaptation: costume. 
 
In this scene of Blair and Nate talking, you can see neither Nate nor Blair, much less the costuming. 
 
But my favourite, gut-busting surreal factor, of course, is the ridiculous advertising of the messaging app Kakao Talk. Seriously, who says, “Kakao me when you’re done?” 
 
 
“Don’t even think about Kakao-ing me, you middle class scum,” Jukk’s character oozes with his every step.
 
Although to be fair, I laugh out loud everytime they mention the app. The use of Kakao reminds us that these people live on a floating cloud where KakaoTalk is popular, a cloud that is definitely not in Thailand.
 
Actual mouth-kissing
 
Fans of mouth-kissing will be ecstatic to note that since Gossip Girl Thailand airs on Channel 3 at 11.20 pm on Thursdays, kissing is no longer restricted to the forehead or cheek. 
 
So far, there has been the same number of sexually-charged scenes as the original, but this is only the pilot. Let’s wait and see if the farthest they go is making out. Either way, get ready for some moral condemnation as well as excited squealing from Thais. 
 
Many of the sex scenes as well as the dialogue have been deemed too saucy for public TV, such as the word อ่อย (flirty), which was cut and released only in the full, uncensored version on YouTube. 
 
Many viewers will be pleased to see that the pilot episode contains actual make out scenes. 
 
Carissa Springett impressed viewers with her take on Blair. Instead of directly copying the original (like Sabina Meisinger did for Serena), she gave her own interpretation of the character through her subdued, sassy smirks. 
 
Chanon Akkarachata’s Jukk (Chuck Bass) left viewers with a memorable impression of a rich Thai-Chinese douche with a powerful father, probably reminding viewers of similar Jukks they know in real life. 
 
Unnatural dialogue and voiceovers
 
Much has already been said on the stilted dialogue that seems to have been directly translated from the English version’s script. The sassy narrating voiceovers do not translate naturally into Thai, referring to “Jao Ying S” and “Rachini B.”  Other cultural inflections that have been ignored in production have increased the degree of surreality. Even if the rumour about script changes limited by contract is true, a more liberal adaptation would have lessened the awkwardness. 
 
Thais who are bilingual in English often blend the two languages into a kind of “Thailish,” which the characters try so darn hard to speak naturally. The characters refer to each other as “you” and “I” in English, but with a Thai accent, but Thai pronouns are used when talking to elders. Depending on the scene or character speaking, the names are spoken either in a Thai or English accent. So at any moment, “Blair” is both the American accented one with the strong “r” sound at the end, or the Thai one, without. “Nate” is both Nate and “Net.” So far, all of these are believable uses of Thailish. 
 
But Thailish is a tricky tongue. Choose the wrong words to speak in Thai or English, and you can be labelled as anything from clueless to awkward to pretentious. 
 
Gossip Girl Thailand seems to have got confused about which words are usually spoken in which language. For example, Blair and Serena call each other “คุณเพื่อน,” (literally Khun Friend) which is virtually unheard of even in Thai. A more believable Thailish term of endearment used by someone of Blair’s socioeconomic class would be, “sis.” 
 
Thailish word choice also has to be strategic in a TV show. Blair says “Deal” in English, but a slightly non attentive listener would have heard “dee.” 
 
Directly-translated phrases such as “Guess whose dad is the coolest?” and “Oh, wait, I wasn’t daydreaming, that actually happened” sound straight-up funny in Thai. 
 
The pilot episode of the Thai adaptation is compared scene by scene with the original.
 
Apparently we are all MDs
 
The awkward sprinkling of English aside, Gossip Girl Thailand also features brand-new vocabulary.
 
About halfway through the pilot episode, we hear, for the first time in our lives, a new derogatory term used for the middle class by the hi-sos. Being middle class myself, I just assumed from my brushes with rich people that they just simply ignore visibly poorer people. I mean, sure, I can buy that Chuck Bass is Jukk Benjakiti, and that he is not soft-spoken nor smooth, but a rather aggressive Thai-Chinese hotel magnate’s son. But would this character really shout rebukes at middle class classmates in the school bathroom without provocation?
 
The awkward invention of the term “MD” is part of a larger issue: Gossip Girl Thailand tries to draw a line between the middle and upper class, but that line is way too thin. A few tweaks to increase localization, however, could unlock an actually riveting class drama and would be more appealing to Thai lakorn fans. Romance between classes is a concurrent theme in lakorn, and a tasteful transfer to Gossip Girl Thailand could bring the plot more down to earth, and connect with the audience on a large scale. 
 
I mean, they don’t live in a hotel, but for middle class kids they could do a lot worse than a spacious house in Ladprao.
 
Dan, Jenny, and their dad are the main middle class characters in the show. If the rich characters are determined to really underline this upper vs. middle class division, then the middle class characters should be portrayed in a way that is even more middle class
 
I’m not talking about made-up insults. I’m talking about moving the middle-class characters into a nondescript townhouse, making Dan and Jenny actually look like they’re sacrificing funds to go to a preppy international school, and making the dad actually look like a member of a forgotten Thai rock band that used to travel in the countryside. (Extra points if he goes all Carabao.) 
 
That would make the “Indie family” (what Gossip Girl calls them in the ending voiceover) more different than the other characters, and the extra localization would make the show more like an adaptation and less like a copy. 
 
Some choice moments in the pilot point to increased class awareness, though. Serena’s mother looks Dan up and down like he is a gross street lamp. Dan yells at Jukk to go bone some “easy hi-so kid” instead of his sister. 
 
Once Gossip Girl Thailand starts actively portraying upper vs. middle class conflict reflected in real life, then the show will gain the momentum of real life conflict. Imagine the viewers, cheering for the Dan family to climb the social ladder, while loving to hate the heirs and heiresses! 
 
Gossip Girl Thailand, though off to a rocky start, should be able to push through a season if localization is visibly amped up. Otherwise, it risks falling flat and boring us with needless hi-so cattiness.