‘Gossip Girl’ review: HBO’s glossy reboot clout chases the original but misses the cutthroat escapism that made it so fun
Greetings upper east siders. Nearly fifteen years since after the CW first enthralled audiences with the exploits of Blair, Serena, Dan, Nate, Chuck, Jenny, and the rest of Gossip Girl’s catty upper class ensemble, the smash hit series is returning with a glossy new Gen-Z reboot courtesy of HBO Max. Now, with an inclusive cast and an updated social media savvy-twist, the series is reimagined for a new generation to get their fill of New York high life. Despite all the right aesthetic trappings and a young cast chock full of talent, Gossip Girl is a sloppily written attempt to cash in on a beloved series – lacking the fire and wit of the original and over-thinking its indulgent, escapist premise.
Featuring the return of Kristen Bell as the voice of GG and starring a gaggle of newcomers, Gossip Girl follows social media influencer Julien (Jordan Alexander), the daughter of a Grammy-winning music producer (played by Emmy winner Luke Kirby), as she and her elite group of uber-rich friends navigate the trials and tribulations of living rich in NYC. Their world is shaken up by the arrival of Zoya (Whitney Peak), the new girl at their prestigious boarding school who finds herself taken under Julien’s wing and indoctrinated into the friend group – much to the chagrin of some of Julien’s more judgmental friends like Audrey, Luna, Monet, and Max. Though they initially hit it off, when the now-defunct rumor blog Gossip Girl makes a sudden unexpected reappearance as an anonymous instagram account, Julien and Zoya find themselves at odds, grappling in a power struggle to remain top dog in New York’s social scene.
Right off the bat, HBO’s Gossip Girl makes the bold decision to reveal the identity of Gossip Girl in the first episode – a significant departure from the original series. It’s a gutsy move, and props should be given to the series for attempting to set itself apart in such a distinct manner, but in revealing Gossip Girl’s identity so early on, it opens a whole new can of worms that ends up doing more harm than good. The biggest issue is that it robs the series of urgency – part of the reason viewers stuck around for six long seasons in the original series was because the world was captivated in finding out the true identity of Gossip Girl – and without that key mystery looming above the show, that’s one less reason for audiences to tune in each week.
Gossip Girl also isn’t nearly as omniscient as she (or rather, they) are in the original – this time around, GG is an Instagram account akin to Deux Moi where anybody can submit anonymous (or not so anonymous) tips. The main characters themselves even spill tea to GG from time to time – but because of this new dynamic, there’s no real reason for them to be wary of her. As such, Gossip Girl herself becomes tertiary instead of an ever-looming presence – at times, sticking around merely as an excuse to invoke the name of the original show and the massive built-in audience that comes with it.
In terms of surface trappings, though, Gossip Girl translates to 2021 spectacularly well. The fashion is requisitely trendy, the name-dropping and status symbols updated for more modern sensibilities, and the pop culture jokes (which include subtle digs at Jameela Jamil and the infamous “Imagine” video) are particularly funny. However, the series nearly instantly shoots itself in the foot by making ample references to the original show and some direct ties, including a particularly unhinged connection to original baddie Georgina Sparks. These constant references to Blair, Serena, and the rest of the gang in turn invites the audience to draw comparisons to the original – against which this new imagining is fighting an uphill battle.
The new 2021 tech-savvy setting and the reveal of GG’s identity in the first episode also begs the question – how is GG’s identity not outed almost immediately? Between Twitter detectives, and the ability to track IP addresses and hack accounts, it’s hardly the same online landscape that made the original premise so easy to accept – and between advances in technology and the fact that the people behind GG talk openly in crowded hallways and at parties about running the account, it comes off as sloppy and not entirely thought through. Granted, part of the charm of the original show is suspending disbelief and turning your brain off, but the show again sabotages itself by making attempts to explain how they wouldn’t be caught – the reality is, the feeble answers and excuses the series comes up with just aren’t good enough.
The subjects of GG’s many Instagram posts and stories, though, fare much better. The two leads are of course Julien and Zoya, who are revealed almost immediately to be half-sisters who’ve hatched a secret plan to bring Zoya to NYC – unbeknownst to their dads and Julien’s friends. It’s a refreshing angle – the two girls at each other’s throats being sisters opens a whole new set of questions, and both Julien and Zoya are surprisingly level-headed, likable characters who are easy to both understand and root for. However, they’re almost too level-headed – because it’s not Julien and Zoya going at each other, so much as it is other people telling Julien and Zoya they should be going at each other – which isn’t exactly compelling TV. Especially in the shadow of Blair and Serena’s never-ending beef, they feel like tame, passive protagonists being pushed around, instead of cutthroat power players. It also doesn’t help since they were never really close to begin with (unlike Blair and Serena) we don’t particularly have a reason to care if they fall out or make up – they barely even know each other.
The rest of the group (and there’s quite a few of them!) are a mixed bag as well. There’s not one but two love triangles – Julien/Obie/Zoya, and Audrey/Aki/Max. Obie (Eli Brown) is a clever critique on “quilty rich” liberal elite, and a satisfactorily down-to-earth Dan type. Then there’s Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind), who’s the closest thing the series has to a Blair Waldorf – she’s dry, witty, and tells it like it is. She’s dating the Nate stand-in Aki (Evan Mock), who’s perhaps the most likable character, a sweetheart and a gentle-giant sort of character whose storyline revolves around him figuring out and coming to terms with his sexuality.
Both Audrey and Aki are tangled up in a love triangle with Max (Thomas Doherty), the Chuck stand-in, who very much feels like a relic of the past, one of the elements the show crucially neglects to update for the 21st century. He’s a near copy-paste of Chuck Bass, down to the leery smirk – except now, instead of just assaulting women, he also makes unwanted advances on men as well – an attempt at inclusivity which unfortunately ends up playing into the already-toxic ‘predatory gay’ stereotype, which would feel much more at home in 2007. Max’s continued advances towards men who very firmly tell him ‘no’ also makes the show’s other attempts at stressing the importance of consent feel performative by proxy – like box-checking or virtue-signaling as opposed to genuine concern.
The show is similarly two-faced in its attitudes towards and depictions of queerness – though some elements (like a subplot revolving around Max’s dads) work, for the rest of the characters, their queerness is less a significant part of who they are or their lives, and more like a prop to make them seem cool and edgy, like a Chanel bag or ketamine-laced cocaine. It comes off as feeling less like a genuine attempt at representation and more like show pandering and trying to be trendy – another crucial failing considering the original Gossip Girl’s less-than-perfect LGBTQ+ representation.
Rounding out Julien’s pack of NYC elites are the series’ biggest failings, Monet (Savannah Smith) and Luna (Zión Moreno), who can be chalked up to little more than walking, talking plot devices. With no depth, personality, or development to speak of beyond “catty mean girl”, they exist only to (sloppily) forward the narrative. They’re the ones pushing Zoya and Julien at odds – perhaps even more than Gossip Girl – which is strange because they’re technically part of Julien’s friend group. But they’re often left out of other ensemble scenes, and don’t even seem to actively like any of their “friends” nor do their “friends” like them. They’re transparent, vapid, and shallow (not in a fun way) and are a disservice to the actresses more than anything else.
Gossip Girl wants to be able to have it both ways – to reference, invoke, (and at times) poke fun at the original to use it for clout, while at the same time expect audiences to suspend disbelief enough to ignore the often gaping plot holes, which point to shoddy writing. This is exacerbated by the fact that, though the episodes themselves are well-paced, the show overall isn’t – they don’t end on stingers or new big revelations from GG that drive us into the next episode, so there’s no real reason to keep watching.
Though it has all the right aesthetic trappings and a young cast chock full of talent, Gossip Girl lacks the fire and the cutthroat mentality of the original that made it such captivating, love-to-hate-it TV. Just as vapid as its gaggle of coke-snorting protagonists, Gossip Girl feels like something its uber-rich teens would never be caught dead with – a knockoff.
xoxo, Gossip Girl begins streaming on HBO Max Thursday, July 8.
Photo: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max