The New “Gossip Girl” Is Nostalgic Fun, But Not Much More

I didn't have a bad time watching, but, man, I just wish it were better.

When it premiered in 2007, the original Gossip Girl felt juicy and daring — almost dangerous. (Granted, I was a teenager myself at the time.) Sex! Drugs! Lavish, reckless spending! The CW’s inside look at the private lives of Manhattan’s underage elite scandalized kids and parents alike.

Now it’s over a decade later, and there’s no shortage of titillation on television. Nor is there a shortage of television, period — we’ve all got plenty to watch. So why an HBO Max Gossip Girl reboot, and why now?

Joshua Safran, who was an executive producer and writer on the original series, reprised Gossip Girl for 2021 with the goal of telling a story “more authentically for our time,” he recently told Vanity Fair. “It was very important, if you’re doing a show about power and privilege, to actually look at how that affects all people, whether you’re queer, whether you’re Black, whether you’re older — that’s really what we wanted Gossip Girl to do this time around, because Gossip Girl herself is the great leveler.”

Ah, OK. We’ve got yet another case of a reboot attempting to atone for the sins of an original show. But much like a more socially conscious version of The L Word scored political points at the expense of a good time, the new Gossip Girl is way too concerned with rehabilitating its mean teens, rather than just letting them screw around and run amok in Manhattan. Being more progressive in casting also doesn’t easily translate to the show at large — it’s still about the vanity and exclusiveness of the ultra-wealthy, after all. What results from trying to refurbish a series about privileged rich kids is a tonal mismatch about bitchy capitalists who just so happen to be browner and queerer than their predecessors. It’s confusing, it’s contrived, and most of all, it’s just kinda boring. I wouldn’t say I had a bad time watching — there’s some fun to be had here! — but man, I just wish it was better.

One of the few surprising steps taken by the writers is to introduce our new Gossip Girl right off the bat. “We’re their last hope,” English teacher Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson) tells her private school colleagues in the pilot, bemoaning their students’ insatiable hunger for power and influence. “We’re supposed to send them out of here Barack Obamas instead of Brett Kavanaughs.” Turns out that this isn’t really a reboot at all, but a continuation of the original Gossip Girl story: Kate and her fellow teachers find Gossip Girl’s defunct blog and decide to resurrect her. Without spending much time mulling over the ethical implications of their project, Kate and pals set up an Instagram account for an anonymous, all-knowing secret spiller who will (supposedly?) keep the rich kids in line.

Since this version takes place in the same universe as the original, it’s sort of goofy that a few of the characters are near-exact replicas of their forebears. But for fans of the original show, it’ll be fun to make comparisons — at the beginning, at least. Our new Lonely Boy, previously played by Penn Badgley, has been reimagined as the “richest and guiltiest” of his peers: Otto “Obie” Bergmann IV (Eli Brown) is the son of disgustingly wealthy real estate tycoons who supports the unionization efforts of their workers. The new Chuck, meanwhile, has the same droll manner of speaking as Ed Westwick did when playing the show’s resident libertine, but thrillingly, Thomas Doherty’s Max Wolfe sleeps with anyone and everyone, which feels far truer to the character. For me, these corrections are among the few redeeming aspects of the show. The original Dan Humphrey lived in a glorious Brooklyn loft, but we were supposed to think he was poor — now his archetype is living in a Brooklyn loft, and he’s the wealthiest kid in the show. And Chuck 2.0 is a bi icon!

The new queen bees are definitely not Blair and Serena 2.0, however — both for better and for worse. Jordan Alexander is Julien Calloway, a biracial Black junior at Constance with a hotshot white music producer father (a wealthier Rufus Humphrey, though sadly not as hot) and millions of Instagram followers. She and her younger half-sister, Zoya (the luminescent Whitney Peak), who’s also got some Jenny Humphrey vibes, conspire online to bring Zoya down from Buffalo to Constance on an arts scholarship without telling either of their dads. Apparently, they hate each other enough to have kept their daughters apart for their entire lives (???). At first, Julien and Zoya both pretend they’ve just met, and this initial deception spirals into chaos once Gossip Girl gets involved.

It’s a very silly premise, and I’m just not sure it delivers. Julien goes through all this trouble to bring her sister to Constance only to have her plan unsurprisingly blow up in her face when her friends, and her boyfriend Obie, feel betrayed that she kept Zoya a secret. And when Gossip Girl implies (correctly, it turns out) that Obie might be more interested in his girlfriend’s first-year sister, Julien gets competitive. She publicly humiliates Zoya at a Christopher John Rogers fashion show, cementing the sisters’ status as rivals.

Julien, who should be the heart of the show, is rather a nothingburger of a character. She obsessively curates her brand for social media with the help of her henchwomen, a queer Black woman and a trans Latina who are otherwise run-of-the-mill mean girls. But four episodes in, I still have no idea what Julien’s beloved “brand identity” even really is. While her boyfriend cares about causes, Julien doesn’t share Obie’s interests, which rules out social justice warrior. She’s a fashionista who horrifies her publicity-minded friends after a day of going without makeup, suggesting she isn’t really shooting for “relatable,” either. Perhaps Julien is simply supposed to be a pretty blank canvas upon which her followers can project their own desires, but if that’s the case, I’d still like to see some more personality and pizzazz when she decides to leave the phone at home.

The problem with Julien is the problem with the show at large, which is wrestling with a major identity crisis. How much should these kids be reckoning with their privilege? So far, not much — and when they do, it’s almost physically painful to watch.

At one point, Julien projects a video of Zoya getting horrifically bullied at her old school to a party full of people, then suddenly decides to own up to being a bully both on her phone and IRL. “I am a bully,” she declares as the background music swells. “I bully my sister, I bully my friends, my fans. And I’m never gonna do it again so long as I live.”

Uhhh…OK? I just don’t know what we’re supposed to take away from all this! So earnest and cringey and weird. Plus, we’re told earlier that, unlike her asshole friends, people actually like Julien — that’s why she’s so popular. And yet her casual forays into savage takedowns would suggest otherwise. Who is this girl, really? And why should we care?

The reboot mostly just made me want to watch the original Gossip Girl again. While the new Gossip Girl is allegedly about the authenticity lost in our hyper-curated age of social media, the original already nailed the sort of preening artifice required of socialites who schmooze one second and backstab the next.

In the 2007 pilot, pretty boy Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) asks Chuck while they’re walking through Central Park whether he ever worries that their whole lives are already planned out for them — if they’re simply doomed to become their parents. What about free choice? Happiness?

“Easy, Socrates,” Chuck tells him. What they’re entitled to is a trust fund, maybe a house in the Hamptons, a prescription drug problem — but happiness isn’t on the menu. “So smoke up,” Chuck says, dragging on his joint. It’s a single exchange that encapsulates the throughline of this otherwise bonkers, soapy romp of a show: the emotional vacuousness at the heart of wealth and power.

In the reboot, wealth is almost incidental; what these kids want is influence. But is anyone really buying it? ●

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