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Does ‘Gossip Girl’ Even Make Sense in 2021?

A new, socially conscious version of ‘Gossip Girl’ has sounded a lot like, God forbid, a nice version of ‘Gossip Girl’

HBO/The CW/Ringer illustration

In the lead-up to the Gossip Girl revival, showrunner Joshua Safran has been busy setting expectations. An alumnus of the same New York City private schools the show makes its milieu, Safran has repeatedly emphasized how the 2021 version of Gossip Girl would depart from the 2007 original. “No slut-shaming. No catfights,” Safran tweeted in response to a fan question this May. “GG2 is sex positive and our characters use their brains, not their brawn, to take you out!” For a Variety feature about TV that vilifies the rich, Safran doubled down: “These kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t,” he argued, drawing a contrast with the first Gossip Girl’s “wealth porn.” At the Vulture Festival in 2019, Safran told the audience that the new series “is very much dealing with the way the world looks now, where wealth and privilege come from, and how you handle that.”

Unsurprisingly, there was a bit lost in translation in these sound bites. Safran’s comments have ruffled some feathers, understandably so: The joy of Gossip Girl, itself adapted from a series of YA novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, was always its unrepentant bitchiness, set against an absurd backdrop of pre–Great Recession wealth. (The show’s initial run may have extended through 2012, but its spirit never moved past 2008.) A socially conscious version of Gossip Girl sounded a lot like, God forbid, a nice version of Gossip Girl—a story that might value being right over being fun. “Please tell me it’s just rich kids being shitty,” a Ringer colleague begged when I let slip that I’d seen screeners. Safran himself has had to push back against the perception he largely created. “Does anyone really think the show isn’t still going to portray characters pitted against one another doing devious things?” he swiftly clarified during the Twitter Q&A.

The good news is that the new Gossip Girl, which lands on HBO Max this Thursday, is not the after-school special some feared it would be. But the ambient anxiety around the release speaks to a valid concern. On the one hand, nine years hardly feels like enough time to merit a full reconsideration; Gossip Girl is recent enough to remain culturally relevant even without new episodes to rekindle our interest. (Not that recency has stopped even quicker turnarounds, like the forthcoming Dexter.) On the other, so much has changed since the finale that it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether Gossip Girl, as a concept, even makes sense in 2021. Rather than trying to reconcile antipathy toward the 1 percent with ogling their lifestyle, or a desire for inclusion with an inherently exclusive setting, why not start fresh?

It’s not like Gossip Girl lacks for successors. Penn Badgley’s You is a hit thriller, but also a delicious meta-commentary on Gossip Girl’s nonsensical ending. Unmasking Dan Humphrey as the anonymous blogger made him look like a psychopathic stalker; You asks what would happen if a show made a bookish incel type a psychopath from the start. The Spanish soap Elite, meanwhile, already has the queer overtones and modern drama (religion! incarceration! HIV!) that the new Gossip Girl aims to introduce. Its fourth season aired on Netflix mere weeks ago. In light of its own long shadow, the burden is now on Gossip Girl to wrestle the spotlight back from its now-peers.

The revival, it turns out, does make a compelling case for itself. That doesn’t mean it’s without major flaws—only that it fulfills the sine qua non of the modern revival: some sort of purpose besides cynically recycling IP. Gossip Girl first aired on the CW, and before the pandemic prolonged production and delayed its release, Safran’s reimagining was planned as a star attraction for the newly launched HBO Max. More than a year after Max’s debut, Gossip Girl is still a high-budget tentpole, stuffed with celebrity cameos (Princess Nokia) and glossy locations (a 15th birthday party held at the famed Webster Hall). It’s also a sincerely novel take on the source material.

Much to critics’ chagrin, that take isn’t one HBO Max initially wanted to publicize in advance, which was a baffling choice that forced many advance reviews to skirt around the basic premise of the resurrected show. That’s a shame, because this premise is far more compelling, not to mention truly progressive, than mere self-awareness. Spoiler hardliners, beware; everyone else, rejoice: The new Gossip Girl avoids the original’s cardinal sin by revealing its namesake scribe from the start. Letting the audience in on the secret doesn’t just preempt the original’s mistakes, in which writers tried to outmaneuver fans until surprise trumped coherence. It also unlocks a new kind of story. This Gossip Girl, it turns out, isn’t one person. She isn’t even a student at Constance Billard or St. Jude’s, the single-sex academies where students scheme, spiral, and occasionally study. She’s a teacher, or rather, teachers—a collective led by Kate Keller, an Iowa MFA dropout played by one Tavi Gevinson.

Gevinson is by far the most famous face in the new ensemble, and her true role makes her casting not just notable, but layered with meaning. Gevinson herself rose to fame as a teenage blogger under the moniker Style Rookie; now, her most prominent acting role to date has her playing a 20-something woman impersonating a teenage blogger, whose first incarnation exists in the world of the show. (“This Chuck and Blair thing is out of control. Definitely pre–cancel culture,” Kate muses while reading through the archives.) Yet the “why” of this new Gossip Girl is just as intriguing as the “who.” The faculty of this fictional private school, as in life, are young, underpaid, and forced to accommodate the whims of their charges—who are, in practice, more like their employers. “We own this school,” a student scoffs in the pilot. “They work for us.” In the teachers’ hands, Gossip Girl, now reborn as a Deux Moi–esque Instagram page, is an attempt to take back control. The students won’t have time to torment their handlers when they’re busy scrambling inside a panopticon.

The imbalance at the heart of the new Gossip Girl is that the subjects aren’t nearly as interesting as the signature plot device. Safran’s comments bear out most predictably in the composition of the cast, which is strenuously contemporary. Constance’s reigning queen bee is Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), an influencer before she’s a legal adult; Chuck Bass’s heir apparent is a bisexual playboy raised by two dads, while Dan Humphrey’s successor delivers donuts to strikers on a picket line. Most other characters are nonwhite, transgender, queer, or some combination thereof. But while their diversity as a group stands out, no performer ends up doing so as an individual. In the first Gossip Girl, the star power of Leighton Meester and Blake Lively radiates off the screen. The 2021 ingenues have yet to show a similar spark.

What Gossip Girl lacks in performances, it makes up for in allusions to the original. Julien’s younger, much less well-off half-sister Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak) is dubbed “Little Z,” a clear echo of Jenny Humphrey; then again, she’s also the out-of-towner whose appearance stirs up trouble, à la Serena van der Woodsen. Julien’s boyfriend, Obie (Eli Brown)—short for Otto Bergmann IV—is a wealthy scion who quickly forms a love triangle with Zoya, combining the hapless romanticism of Nate Archibald with the lefty politics and cheekbones of Dan Humphrey. These analogs anchor Gossip Girl in its past; the proper nouns place it firmly in the future. The restaurants (Vinegar Hill House, Locanda Verde, Sadelle’s), the name drops (Jeremy O. Harris, Jameela Jamil, Olivia Jade), and the soundtrack (Jessie Ware, Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion) are all as obsessively curated as Gossip Girl’s own timeline. No one could accuse the show of not doing its research on Gen Z status symbols, nor failing to make the most of its clearly ample resources.

The details may be different, but the overstuffed opulence is pure old-school Gossip Girl. (That maximalist approach extends to the dialogue; one character likens the Gossip Girl voice to “if E.M. Forster got roofied by Dorothy Parker and Jacqueline Susann.”) The representation is certainly new, but it can ring a little false. Gossip Girl has always been a fantasy in which minors own hotels and banish their enemies; there’s nothing wrong with pretending the Upper East Side is a little less white than it overwhelmingly is. Still, we have recent, real-world evidence about what happens when educators try to burst their affluent students’ bubble—it leads to the sort of moral panic that former New York Times staffer Bari Weiss now makes her living by provoking, and could very well make for great TV. I’d like to see a Gossip Girl that retained at least one token reactionary—if not for fidelity, then at least for the drama.

There is at least one form of diversity that this new Gossip Girl makes the most of: class. Yes, Zoya is a scholarship student. But our new Gossip Girl is a coalition of downwardly mobile, student debt–burdened wage earners who decide to give their overlords a taste of their own attention-seeking medicine. In the four episodes screened for critics, Gossip Girl doesn’t always seem to realize what it has on its hands: a built-in delivery device for its own critique. (No one knows better how problematic it is to idolize the rich than their victims!) Watching Kate and her colleagues struggle to get Gossip Girl off the ground is nonetheless a rich vein of plot. And in the remaining eight hours—the season is split into two six-part halves, the second of which will air in the fall—there’s plenty of space to build. Will the teachers lead a revolution in miniature against their oppressors, or will proximity to power make them just as cruel? That’s one secret we can only hope they tell.