Gossip Girl review: The HBO Max reboot is a sheep in wolf's clothing
In HBO Max's sequel to Gossip Girl, a new generation struggles to balance trashy-rich thrills with aspirational self-seriousness.
Has it really been nine years since Gossip Girl ended? Doesn't it feel more like 90? The glitzy-cheeky CW melodrama about gladiatorial Upper East Side socialites dominated the zeitgeist in its heyday. Now HBO Max is betting a reboot will capture the attention of an over-served streaming audience. But does the new Gossip Girl (premiering July 8 on HBO Max) live up to the original show's legacy? And just what IS that legacy? EW critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich dig into the series, which has so much more and yet also somewhat less. (To clarify: More butts, less goodness.)
DARREN: A school year dawns at Constance Billard, the fanciest prep school in Manhattan. It's a post-COVID world here in Gossip Girl's New York. The new aristocrats aren't old enough to remember an ancient era of blogger gossip. They have follower armies, a social conscience, and expansive sexual interests. Julien (Jordan Alexander) rules the school because, well, she rules the internet. As an influencer, she dominates the central friend group. Her limousine socialist boyfriend Obie (Eli Brown) worries he's dating a brand, not a person. Her bestie Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind) loves cinephile Aki (Evan Mock). Then there's Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), a rapacious thrill-seeker who wants to do everything with/to everyone.
And then there's Julien's half-sister Zoya (Whitney Peak), a Buffalo native and Brooklyn resident whose sudden arrival upends Julien's life. Don't forget about Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson) and her fellow Constance teachers, who feel under constant assault from all-powerful students and overbearing parents. There's a lot going on in the first four episodes of this reboot. And HBO Max requested that critics not even mention the nature of Gossip Girl herself, who returns with a new secret identity (though still voiced by Kristen Bell).
I loved the CW series in its first couple seasons, and was honored to write about it as part of EW's 50 Best Teen TV Shows. I have mixed-to-negative feelings about the show's later years, and the Max-ed out Gossip Girl continues the downward trend. Zoya and Julien should be the core of the show: the sister who reigns supreme, the sister who may yet replace her. Something about the nature of streaming drama seems to require too many characters too early. The teacher characters are all total calamities, and any time spent with them pulls crucial attention away from all the teen social warfare.
That brings up a bigger issue, Kristen. All that social warfare is…pretty tame? The new Gossip Girl is vastly more sensitive about everything, in a way that feels at once wholly sincere and brutally boring. The hedonistic cad has an immediate heart of gold. Major scandals keep ending in hugs. "You don't have to drink!" Julien tells Zoya on the new girl's first night out at the club, "We don't peer pressure!" I'm a dad who stays up nights worrying my kid will get bullied someday. But I have to ask: What even is the point of Gossip Girl without peer pressure?
What was your relationship with the original show, Kristen? And do you think these HBO Max kids are all right?
KRISTEN: Though I didn't watch the original Gossip Girl with any regularity, like all EW employees at the time, I absorbed its pop culture ubiquity through osmosis. (Dorota 4eva!) And I'm certainly not the sequel's target audience, though it's not really clear who is. Perhaps the Constance Billard teachers — a put-upon collection of milquetoast adults who are regularly victimized by their spoiled, entitled students — are meant to appeal to older viewers, many of whom probably have a lot of thoughts about "kids these days"? If only Kate Keller and her colleagues weren't so painful to watch. Despite Gevinson's obvious efforts, Kate is a whiny, brow-furrowing worrywart. (It doesn't help that Gevinson, who is 25, looks as young as her students. Alexander, for example, is 27.) Meanwhile, Kate's cronies (played by Megan Ferguson, Rana Roy, and Adam Chanler-Berat) are so thinly-drawn that their characters' names may as well be "Teachers 1, 2, and 3." And poor Jason Gotay, who plays the implausibly hot classics teacher Rafa Caparros, has already been asked to perform two dramatic confrontation scenes while being fully nude — and we've only seen four episodes!
This Gossip Girl comes from Joshua Safran, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage — the team behind the CW series — and the reboot has flashes of the original's sharp and clever wit. A club waitress offers Julien some "space coke" during a night out; Constance's regal Headmistress Burton (the equally regal Donna Murphy) hires Black Cube to suss out Gossip Girl's identity; Zoya experiences the ultimate Gen Z snub when the popular girls protest her addition to Julien's group text by leaving the chat en masse. Standouts Zión Moreno and Savannah Lee Smith deliver a refreshing dose of wicked humor as Julien's mercenary minions Luna La and Monet, respectively.
Given our current era of cyberbullying and brutal teen toxicity, it feels wrong to say it, but I'm with you, Darren: This Gossip Girl simply isn't nasty enough. Sure, characters vow to exact revenge on their frenemies multiple times an episode, but so far, all the détentes end with poignant personal epiphanies. ("I am a bully!") The original allowed the awful characters to own their awfulness. (Blair: "You're disgusting." Chuck: "Yes, I am.") Here, everyone's always apologizing.
Naturally, a lot of the hurt feelings stem from romantic entanglements, both with the teens and the adults. Are any of these relationships working for you, Darren?
DARREN: I love that you call out Luna La and Monet. Their amoral elitism is the only part of neo-Gossip Girl that feels like Gossip Girl. Scratch off Obie's oft-stated progressivism and his character arc is blandly familiar: Nice Guy is Sad, Romantic. Aki and Audrey fall into an amorous jumble, yet there's no sense of tension as their relationship gets endangered. And then that hot classics teacher flirts constantly with a high schooler. Now, we're two parents complaining this teen show isn't offensive enough. Welcome to 2021, and maybe a whole generational rift over whether portraying awfulness means condoning awfulness. I guess I am pro-awfulness, so the one subplot I should support is an inappropriate teacher-student entanglement. This show can't even do lurid right. It weirdly insists this obviously-wrong relationship stems from heartfelt concern.
Safran is the showrunner of this reboot. Maybe he doesn't want to be called problematic, which is hilarious considering how many tyrants of unleashed-id populate this canon. The new show doesn't seem to draw much from Cecily von Ziegesar's novels beyond general inspiration. Even so, the teen sensibility feels dated. Someone says "I volunteer as tribute," the sharpest reference of forever ago. Kids don't say "no," they say "unsubscribe," oof.
Gevinson was an actual successful blogger, whose thoughtful final post on Rookie was the closing statement on the old, not-as-suffocatingly-corporate internet. Now she's stuck playing the worst character on the worst corner of the show. I think you're right that the teachers are, to some extent, audience surrogates for people who watched the original Gossip Girl, but all the meta-fandom misses the mark. At one point, someone describes the original Gossip Girl blog as "a lost Edith Wharton novel." Later, it's stated aloud that the Gossip Girl voice is "Like if E.M. Forster got roofied by Dorothy Parker and Jacqueline Susann." My, we're feeling fancy! I mean this as a huge compliment: Gossip Girl at its best was a lowbrow portrait of a highbrow world, imagining the shining stars of American prosperity lived in a savage pit of stylish mud. The reboot wants to sensitively portray treacherous wealth. That's a self-defeating policy. They already destroyed the middle class; must they be so middlebrow?
Kristen, are there other creative decisions that jump out to you as troubling?
KRISTEN: In addition to overloading their shows with too many characters, streaming dramas often rely too heavily on speed-plotting. Gossip Girl burns through more story in the first four episodes than the original did before February sweeps (Google it, kids) — and as a result, too much of that story feels half-baked. Soapy dramas are nothing without suspension of disbelief, but "just go with it" developments need to be the garnish, not the main course. Episode four features one of the funniest character introductions of the year. (Teeny-tiny spoiler: This person is connected to the OG GG.) By the end of the absurdly action-filled hour, though, the writers have shark-jumped the intriguing newcomer into generic agent-of-chaos territory — another opportunity sacrificed to the Attention Deficit gods.
Once upon a time, Blair Waldorf revealed the only thing that mattered to Queen Bees like herself: "The four G's: Guys, girlfriends, and Gossip Girl." That would probably sound quaint to the polyamorous, progressive mini-moguls at the center of this next-gen reboot — but that mission statement, in all of its elegant simplicity, fueled much of the original Gossip Girl's greatness. It's tempting to call this reboot a fustercluck, but there could be something here — if Safran and Co. are willing to go back to the basics of bitchiness. Grade: C