The original Gossip Girl saw the frisky, ultra-rich students of Constance Billard and St. Jude’s fall prey to the whims of Gossip Girl, a blogger (voiced by Kristen Bell) who took perverse glee in airing their dirty laundry online and making their lives miserable.
During the series finale, it was revealed that none other than Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), the outsider from Brooklyn who harbored an obsession with “it girl” Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively), was—against all logic and reason—the Upper East Side puppeteer.
According to Joshua Safran, who served as a writer and executive producer on the aughts Gossip Girl, the team was planning for Nate to be Gossip Girl right up until he left after Season 5.
“I think there would have been holes in anybody being Gossip Girl,” Safran told The Daily Beast. “With Dan, it makes sense because he wanted to find a way in; but with Nate, it was because he’d never sent anything in to Gossip Girl, and if it had been Nate, it was based on this idea that he’d felt so guilty for sleeping with Serena that he had to create an alter ego to bring us all to it.”
There is, however, no such mystery in Safran’s hotly anticipated Gossip Girl reboot, which premieres July 8 on HBO Max (and July 9 on The CW). After witnessing a fellow Constance teacher be fired due to a student’s lies, Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson) decides to revive the long-dormant Gossip Girl—this time on Instagram and again voiced by Bell—in order to keep the spoiled teens in line. For Safran, who was initially reluctant to revive the series, it was the key that unlocked everything.
“Coming up with the idea of knowing who Gossip Girl was from the top—and having it be a teacher—was the thing that excited me the most, because it’s doing the show in a new way instead of just retreading,” explained Safran.
It marked a heavy departure from the first series, where co-creator Stephanie Savage had a firm rule that they never go inside the classroom. So, while OG creators Savage and Josh Schwartz (who serve as EPs on the reimagining) were onboard, the bigwigs at HBO and WarnerMedia needed “a little bit of convincing.”
“When you hear ‘teachers’ you think older, more stodgy, more matronly—all these things that are actually unrealistic to teachers, and you’re like, no, in reality private school teachers’ median age is 31,” Safran told me.
And so, in the new Gossip Girl, the teachers are the ones trolling the students.
For millennial viewers like me who grew up with the first Gossip Girl, this new conceit dramatizes the tensions between millennials and Gen Z. In Safran’s case, it was a way to wrest control from the show’s striking teen cast.
“I’m Gen X and I’m sure it came out in the fabric of me being older than I was during the first Gossip Girl. When I first watched My So-Called Life, I so very clearly identified with Angela and all the kids, but when I found myself watching it on TV years later, I found myself identifying more with the parents. Weirdly, I can actually identify more with the parents of the first Gossip Girl than I did at the time, so this was a way to bring myself into it,” said Safran, adding, “I am the teachers, and in a way, I am Gossip Girl.”
Safran credits a good friend of his, casting director Cassandra Kulukundis—who’s cast every Paul Thomas Anderson film since Magnolia—with recommending Tavi Gevinson for the part. Gevinson, 25, rose to fame as an 11-year-old fashion and lifestyle blogger in 2008, when the first Gossip Girl was on the air. She later founded Rookie magazine and segued into acting with roles opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said and on the Broadway stage alongside Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin in This Is Our Youth.
“I can’t tell you who I had in mind for Kate because once Tavi was cast, she overwrote whoever I had in my mind,” said Safran. “Obviously, Tavi is a journalist and has this background as a young woman looking at her age group from the vantage point of that age group, and her work remains unparalleled in that respect, but it’s simply that Tavi is a truth-seeker and a truth-teller, as an actor and as a human, and Kate thinks she’s doing that. In a sense, Tavi is what Kate isn’t.”
Though he sees anyone who assumes the mantle of Gossip Girl as subject to “a cautionary tale of seeing someone playing God,” Safran believes Gevinson is perfect for the part due to her innate sense of childlike wonder.
“Tavi has this ability to make you really still like her even when you see her doing these bad things,” offered Safran. “It’s fascinating to me because with Dan Humphrey, he did all these bad things too, but we never saw them. If you retconned it and put in all the sequences of Dan being Gossip Girl and showed him sending posts of his girlfriend while she was sleeping next to him, you’d think this guy was more dangerous than Joe in You.”