At the height of its powers, the original Gossip Girl was a heady cultural moment, an almost-camp soap opera featuring beautiful teenagers doing grown-up things like drugs, sex, and charity balls, set in the rarified world of the Upper East Side of New York City. Neither aspirational nor strictly anthropological, the original worked by slotting itself neatly into the “so bad it’s almost good” category, a sweet spot that has sustained much lesser shows in the past. When it ended, after six seasons, the show had lost most of its verve, so much that the reveal of who Gossip Girl actually was felt like the most obvious answer, and also, the stupidest. It stands to reason that any attempt to revive this intellectual property and to update it for modern times would be ill-advised, as beloved as the first iteration was. But Joshua Safran, a writer-producer on the original series, has thrown his energy into a reboot, now airing on HBO Max—a curious choice that doesn’t quite find its audience.
The current-day iteration of Gossip Girl is diverse in a way that the original wasn’t, centering Julien (Jordan Alexander) and Zoya (Whitney Oak), two Black half-sisters who, by their own scheming, are both attending Constance Billard. Julien is an influencer with a music producer father and Zoya the middle-class interloper, recently moved to New York City from Buffalo. Both girls are attempting to fulfill their shared mother’s request, which was to have them be in each other’s lives, and it seems that the only way to do so was via parental deceit. Bolstering Julien and acting as her deputies cum social media managers are Monet (Savannah Smith) and Luna (Zion Moreno), two women who, in the pilot, do not seem to serve much purpose other than to ride their queen’s generous coattails, clinging to their own popularity by bolstering hers. Obie (Eli Brown) looks like Penn Badgley and is the son of wealthy real-estate developers living in Dumbo; the twist is that he has a conscience and is unafraid to show it, absolving his guilt around his privilege by bringing FanFan Donuts to striking workers and attending meetings at an organization called Right to the City that, in his own words, that “halts displacement of marginalized communities due to gentrification.” Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind) is blonde, beautiful, and trapped in a relationship she doesn’t want to be in with Aki (Evan Mock). And for those wondering where the Chuck Bass equivalent is, meet Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), a sly minx of a man who is non-discriminatory when it comes to sexual partners and is the show’s resident bad boy.
The teachers of Constance Billard have no control over their students, and seemingly, their jobs; they are instead held captive by the petty meanness of their teen wards. Teacher Kate Keller (played by ur-influencer Tavi Gevinson, in a move that made me feel breathtakingly old), cowers in fear from Monet and Luna, who sneer at her Zara wardrobe and treat her and her colleagues as obstacles to overcome. Taking back the power that is rightfully theirs is a central part of the pilot and it is clear that the power struggle between adult and child will be intrinsic to the show as it unfolds. It’s less clear if it is going to be interesting, but that is not the fault of the actors involved. What Gossip Girl struggles with is picking an audience and playing to it.
It would be a choice to play to the older Millennials who grew up with the original, tickling their fancy for nostalgia, but what doesn’t work about the reboot is that it is struggling to be everything for everyone. There’s no doubt that the teens these days are more well-versed in concepts like dismantling the patriarchy, gentrification, and wealth inequality, but I have a hard time believing that they would speak about these topics with such clarity. Tech is now an intrinsic part of the way the new cast lives; a compromising photo is AirDropped during a fashion show; teens are well-versed in the intricacies of personal security, and use Signal for sexting. Perhaps the most realistic part of the entire enterprise thus far is that Gossip Girl, when she returns from dormancy, is still just a hair behind, operating not by mysterious push alert sent to a Blackberry or Sidekick but by a tag on Instagram, instead of TikTok, Snapchat, or wherever other teen malfeasance flourishes these days.
Mapping the characters of the original onto the teens that populate the reboot is intentionally difficult because their archetypal roles have been dismantled and reconstructed. Truthfully, there are no real direct parallels to the original material, though if you squint, you can sort of make the connection. This holds true for the identity of Gossip Girl, which is established in the first episode, stripping the show of the previous iteration’s central mystery and posing a much more interesting question about power: who controls the narrative and how that narrative necessarily shifts. The specifics of who and how Gossip Girl operates in 2021 are slightly unbelievable, but grasping at any reality in this show is a fool’s errand. Instead, we are left to ponder the central question, what the show has always been about: “The only thing that makes a story true is who’s telling it,” coos Kristen Bell in a voice-over near the show’s end. The trouble is, does anyone care enough to listen?