‘Gossip Girl’ Creator Joshua Safran on Why Ivanka and Jared Are Not Welcome
The creator of HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” reboot talks about the “Woke Gossip Girl” criticisms, his diverse cast, and the “telltale rim job.”
Joshua Safran has seen the tweets and the think pieces. He knows his reimagining of Gossip Girl, the aughts teen soap opera trailing a coterie of naughty Upper East Side elites, has received the scathing sobriquet “Woke Gossip Girl”—based, it seems, on the trailer and a handful of quotes he’s given about how his rich kids will “wrestle with their privilege” and avoid “slut shaming.” A recent piece in Jezebel even branded the HBO Max series “tragically misguided” and a paragon of “perfect moral goodness” sight unseen.
“The Jezebel article made me laugh,” Safran tells me. “If anyone’s ever hung out with any rich kids right now, they’re aware of their privilege. They have to be. The Kardashians talk about it all the time. Just because you’re aware of your privilege doesn’t mean you don’t abuse it.”
Having seen the first four episodes of Safran’s new Gossip Girl, I can safely say that these wayward teens engage in plenty of mischief—and loads more sex than the first go-around. (The third episode sees Audrey Hope, the show’s de facto Blair Waldorf, eating the ass of her bi-curious boyfriend, Aki—but more on that later.) The diverse cast, led by Jordan Alexander as influencer Julien and Whitney Peak as her half-sister/rival Zoya—is terribly attractive, and the production values are considerably higher (goodbye, Empire Hotel).
For die-hard fans of the original like myself, watching Gossip Girl 2.0 is an adjustment. The Dan look-alike, Obie (Eli Brown), is the wealthiest of the bunch and has eyes for the freshman Zoya, who’s essentially its Little J; Max (Thomas Doherty), aka Chuck Redux, is a bisexual drug addict trying to fuck the pain away; and Tavi Gevinson plays a teacher who gives her scheming students a run for their money. Their New York City is dark and neon-lit, they follow Gossip Girl on Instagram, and are all minor celebs in their own right whose parents are firmly wrapped around their fingers.
At the center of it all is Safran, who served as a writer and executive producer on the OG Gossip Girl—he attended Horace Mann, and the character of Nate is partly based on him—before leaving prior to the final season to run Smash. And Safran is keen to dispel the rumors surrounding his hotly anticipated show, which drops July 8 on HBO Max (and the following day on the CW).
What made you want to reboot Gossip Girl in the first place?
Well, I can’t say what made me want to reboot it because it came from [original creators] Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage], which then came from Warner Bros. Stephanie tried a couple of ways and then thought, “Let’s reach out to Safran”—they call me “Safran”—and they said, “You know, we’ve been knocking this around, but we haven’t found a way to do it. If you’ll do it, we’ll find a way to do it, but if you aren’t, I think we’ll all just walk away.” I was not interested, honestly, because it was still pretty recent history—it was in late 2018, before all the reboot craziness—and I just didn’t think there was a reason to do this. Then I had an idea, and I couldn’t let go of the idea, so I thought, “You know what? Let me look into this idea.” At the time, I was running this other show Soundtrack for Netflix, so this was sort of a folly that I could do on the side. As it grew, I just got more and more intensely interested in it, and in the way in that I found, which I don’t want to spoil.
There were a lot of Trumpworld ties to the original Gossip Girl. Hope Hicks modeled on the cover of The It Girl, a Gossip Girl spin-off, and Jared and Ivanka infamously cameoed on Gossip Girl as friends of Lily van der Woodsen. I’m assuming the Trump clan would not be at home in your new Gossip Girl.
Definitely not! Definitely not. And at the time, they were just sorta-celebrities. Trump was a bad real estate mogul, but I don’t think any of us saw what was coming. I think celebrity has shifted. Julien is an influencer, and when you look at influencer culture, it’s not often about who you’re hanging out with. The cameos here are more about the world that they enter, not who goes to them. In 2007, the kids weren’t famous like kids are famous now. Gossip Girl was talking about them, but if they went to a party, Jared and Ivanka were there—it wasn’t that Jared and Ivanka were there to see them. The world has shifted a little bit to where if Julien goes to a party, there are celebrities that are going to want to be at that party because Julien is there. This group of kids are more magnets than the first group of kids were inside their worlds.
And that New York City—with the Jared and Ivanka crowd—was decidedly less hip than your vision of it. That had a more old-money feel, whereas your kids wouldn’t be caught dead at a place like 21 Club.
Yes. This represents where New York is now. Also, the original Gossip Girl was based on a book series and had closer ties to the Edith Wharton and Henry James side of New York—and we were always talking about that. We were always talking about Metropolitan and The Age of Innocence, and that’s why that first show was so successful. This show still has some of that DNA, but we talk more about Succession and Karena Evans’ work—who directed the pilot and Episode 2. It’s referencing more what culture is now. In 2007, which isn’t that long ago, we were interested in watching shows about rich people having problems too because there weren’t many shows that looked under the hood of being rich. Now, because of Instagram, we can look under anyone rich’s hood at any time of any day.
You mentioned Succession, but your show has a different relationship to the rich than Succession does. In Succession, it’s more viewers reveling in the awfulness of these spoiled, ultra-wealthy scions—at a remove.
Yeah. You want to be like them, but you also realize that being like them is trickier than you thought. With everything I’ve done, my thing has always been that you get a 360-degree view of the characters. You get this front-facing everything’s perfect, we look amazing, and then you start revolving around them and through them, and you realize that it all comes at a price. There still is an element of “rich people problems” there, although in this one you’re getting multiple points of view. The first one had rich kids and rich parents and then Dan, Jenny, and Rufus, who were kind of poor, but they lived in this amazing place. This show has rich parents and rich kids, including kids and parents who aren’t as wealthy as the others, and then you have the teachers who have absolutely no money, live in studio apartments, and if they lost their jobs would struggle to get another one. They can lose their livelihood.
There’s been some pushback in the media, with some designated the new series “Woke Gossip Girl”—in a disparaging way.
People talking about it is all you can hope for. I think it’s hilarious because everyone saying that hasn’t seen the show. Let them say whatever they want. The term “woke”… any term that becomes a stand-in to mean so many different things is ridiculous, but I don’t feel that at all about this perspective inside the show where the kids know their privilege. If anyone’s ever hung out with any rich kids right now, they’re aware of their privilege. They have to be. The Kardashians talk about it all the time. Just because you’re aware of your privilege doesn’t mean you don’t abuse it. The idea that that’s what’s being taken out of context makes me laugh. They think I’m saying, “They’re aware of their privilege, so they’re not going to do something terrible!” Of course they’re still going to do something terrible! They’re just going to be aware that they’re doing something terrible, and that’s even more fun and juicy, because they melt down because they know what they’ve done.
Jezebel published a piece based on the trailer and some quotes you’ve given to the press that read in part, “The Gossip Girl of the late aughts and early twenty-teens was about escapism, melodrama, and even camp; more in the vein of a soap opera, it was never particularly concerned with social realism.”
It’s ridiculous. I’m not making the same show! I would never do that. We don’t have the same cast, it’s not the same time, it’s not the same budget, and it’s not the same creators. Josh and Stephanie are EPs and they’re involved, but if I tried to make the same show the conversation would be so much worse right now. I’m interested in revisiting Gossip Girl every 15 years if they’ll have me. I think that the trope of it is fascinating—and can last forever. Honestly, I think most of the people writing these pieces aren’t actually the age of the kids in the show, and the cast—and the kids in the world—are aware. It’s like, I’m so sorry that I made the show realistic! I’m actually not sorry at all that I made it realistic, and I actually think that the original was realistic. Serenas and Blairs do really exist. That’s what rich kids were like back then, and this is what rich kids are like now. And they do terrible things still. When people watch the show, those criticisms are going to go away—and if they don’t, let’s talk about privilege and power. This is a good conversation; this is not a bad conversation. The Jezebel article made me laugh.
You mentioned not being able to do the same show, and of course you couldn’t, because the pilot for the original Gossip Girl has Chuck assaulting two people—Jenny and Serena. Today, it would probably be impossible for him to come back from that.
Yes. We look at those types of things, but in a different way in this version. In Episode 4, Max asks Aki, “Do I have your consent?” Because young people say that—and it’s important to have that in there. I’m sure somebody’s going to read that quote and say, “Oh god! Gossip Girl characters asking for consent and honesty?!” I’m sure you saw my tweet about how “there’s no slut-shaming” in this version, and I got ratioed with all these crazy tweets about “abolish feminism” and “feminism is killing the culture” and I’m like, cool, thank you for letting me know that you actually think feminism is something that’s being abolished. That’s something that gets me. I’m making this show for people who want to actually understand and be interested in the world.
Did you ever talk to Gossip Girl author Cecily von Ziegesar about who the inspiration for the original Gossip Girl was? Because I always thought Blair might be based on Bee Shaffer, who went to Spence and whose mother is of course Anna Wintour.
Oh, I’ve heard that before! But no, I never asked her, and I don’t know. I think Jessica Queller, one of the writers of the original Gossip Girl, made that comparison at some point. In the room, we never talked about anyone factually. We just talked about characters from literature, like Sense and Sensibility or Shakespeare.
Was Nate modeled on Jared Kushner? It seemed like he was, given that his father is in trouble with the law, he purchases a local paper like Jared did with the New York Observer, and he has political aspirations.
It comes from the books, so I don’t know how Cecily began that, and his Season 1 storyline came from a lot of us who had complicated relationships with their fathers, including me, so… I don’t know. I don’t remember ever talking about that in the writers’ room, but if we did it was unintentional.
I know Penn Badgley has discussed how Dan Humphrey, the original Gossip Girl, was a progenitor of sorts to his serial killer Joe in You. As soon as that series finale reveal dropped, fans began reassessing all the crazy things Dan did—including targeting his sister—and thought, “Wow, this guy’s a total sociopath.” There are also a ton of plot holes in it. What did you think about the finale reveal, since you’d left prior to the final season?
I think there would have been holes in anybody being Gossip Girl, and it wasn’t Dan when I left the show [after Season 5], but I also understand why it is Dan. Yes, I agree there are things that don’t line up, but it had to be Dan. I wanted it to be Nate, and it actually makes much more sense when it’s Nate—even when it doesn’t make sense. I mean, it would have been great to never reveal it.
So, at the end of Season 5, Gossip Girl was Nate.
It was Nate. It was Nate until the day I left. I think we all came to the conclusion that it might be Nate by the end of Season 4, and then we spent Season 5 teeing it up. If you watch it, there are many clues to it being Nate. But I also think weirdly, in noir fashion, it’s great that we dropped a red herring. But it wasn’t as organic as Dan. 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.
Going back to the new Gossip Girl, I have to ask: Will there be a Season 1 moment on a par with, “I killed someone?”
[Laughs] It’s so funny—did you pick up on that Easter egg where Audrey says, “I did something terrible,” and Julien says, “What, did you kill someone?” There are a lot of Easter eggs in there. There will not be that. And by the way, I take full credit/blame for “I killed someone,” because that definitely came from me. I remember the reaction in the writers’ room, and I thought that I’d destroyed the show in a bad way. Stephanie was like, “People liked it!” but I was so freaked out. I also had that when Chuck got shot. But there is something in this first season that’s a big OMG moment like “I killed someone,” however it’s not done in a soapy, shocking way. The main thing I wanted to change in this version tonally was I wanted to take time with our stories, so when there’s a big OMG moment it doesn’t dissipate over an episode, but you end up following it for a while.
“OMG” reminds me of the original Gossip Girl’s ad campaign, which was pretty racy—a lot racier than the show ended up being. But your Gossip Girl has a lot more sex in it. I mean, there’s a rim job in Episode 3. So, I’m guessing there will be a CW edit with far less sex.
Oh, yes! I’m working on that right now. Let me tell ya, it’s real difficult. I did not know that was coming. If I’d have known it was coming, I’d have shot alternate footage. It’s been tricky.
What was the motivation for having a lot more sex than the first go-around?
We wouldn’t have been able to get away with that stuff. We alluded to things—for instance, Chuck and Blair got into some pretty fun stuff out of frame. Remember, there’s an entire scene where Dorota comes in and Blair is talking to Dorota, but Chuck is under the blanket clearly… doing something to Blair that she’s trying to hide. That’s pretty racy! But for me, with this version, it’s HBO Max, so there were no restrictions. There’s some full-frontal nudity, but it’s not gratuitous. When Max goes to a bathhouse, people are naked in the background, and there’s some in the play, because the character in the play is naked. My whole point was that, whenever there was sex, it was based in character. So, that rim job is a telltale rim job, because Audrey does it and then immediately is like, “Oh shit! Now Aki is going to know I cheated on him.” That was a character moment.
“The Telltale Rim Job” by Edgar Allen Poe.
[Laughs] It was a telltale rim job! Circa 2007, there wasn’t as much access to the internet for teenagers as there is now. People know about sex more and are trying these things earlier, so it was a way to showcase character and also have realistic depictions. Also, they’re beautiful people, so they can make anything sexy. Seeing Jordan just walking down the street is sexy. But I’m happy to be able to explore character through sex in a way that we couldn’t with the CW. On the CW, it ended up being more jokey.
Did you ever consider changing the location from the Upper East Side?
I grew up in New York City, and on the Upper East Side, and went to private school, so it would be stupid to set it anywhere else. I will say, and you’re the first person I’ve told this to, during COVID, when we weren’t sure if we could shoot here, we briefly discussed moving the show to London, because at that point London wasn’t in lockdown yet. We were two weeks out from shooting when the lockdown happened. Then there was talk of shooting London for New York or shooting London for London and making it a sister school to Constance Billard. But if we’d done that we’d have been screwed.
I wanted to talk about the show’s diversity. Sadly, these Upper East Side prep schools still aren’t very diverse, so does the show function as almost a post-racial utopia version of the Upper East Side?
Um… no. One of the distinctions that I made in this version is, while the school is still there, the only character that lives up there is Audrey. And I went to a New York City private school in the ’90s, and my private school was much more diverse than Constance was in the 2007 version of the show. I don’t think it’s a fantasy universe because my school was pretty diverse in the ’90s, and private schools have become more diverse. Is it completely mixed? Absolutely not. These private schools still do have their problems. As the writers and I were working on Season 1, all those Instagram accounts like Black Spence Speaks and Black at Brearley came out, talking in an anonymous way about all the problems that people of color experience at these schools. So, it’s not a fantasy universe. Zoya talks repeatedly about being a scholarship student and Luna mentions being an outsider. It’s all in there. It’s like in the Jezebel article—they’re expecting this to be some “lesson” that I’m trying to teach people that’s actually not the show. This isn’t the show to fully talk about those Instagram accounts, for instance, but it is there. We tried to make it as realistic as possible.
There is a moment in the first four episodes I was given where Zoya gets into a heated dispute with someone after the Jeremy O. Harris play. Will there be more moments like that where the show explores race?
Yes. I don’t think Gossip Girl is the show that necessarily has to make that prevalent in every episode—I think there is a show to be made about that separate from this—but it’s definitely in there. We have a very diverse writers’ room, and we talk about the characters and where they come from. Because it’s Gossip Girl, it comes out in these smaller ways, but not necessarily a whole episode based on it.
Will any of the original Gossip Girl cast make appearances? Did you try to get them, and they turned you down?
[Laughs] We made a decision early on—and I was nervous about this decision, but definitely came to believe it was right—that the audience would never accept these characters if they were in the shadow of the original characters. They’re already in the shadow of the original characters, but if the original characters were there with them in some way, why would you want to briefly get to know Zoya if you suddenly can see Nate? Also, this show is much bigger than the first show. It’s got 16 series regulars instead of seven, and 22 recurring instead of 12, so because the show is bigger, there isn’t enough screen time. If Blair showed up for two scenes, you’d say, “I want more Blair.” The decision was: Let’s get Season 1 under our belt, and should we get Season 2, we’ll have the chance to bring in cameos that are more than glorified cameos but actually give them storylines. Hopefully we’ll get there and will reach out to the cast if that time comes and see if they’ll want to come. There are some cameos in Season 1 from people on the original show, but not the series regulars.