The New ‘Gossip Girl’ Is Trash. But It May Also Be Brilliant.
How do you “Gossip Girl” in the age of privilege and Instagram? It turns out, messily. But the sexy fun of the HBO Max revival is elevated by some shrewd insight on modern teens.
I have a big secret to tell you. But you have to promise you won’t get mad.
When you watch the new Gossip Girl, premiering Thursday on HBO Max, you’ll learn what it is. But it’s just so juicy I can’t help but dish now. In fact, if I’m going to talk about this show, it’s kind of the most important thing to tell you. It won’t affect how you feel about it. I swear.
It’s a funny story, actually. They tried to tell us we couldn’t talk about it, but we stood our ground. We thought you just had to know. Do we have your consent?
Don’t read on if you don’t want to hear the big reveal—though you’ll find out what it is soon enough. (Within the first 20 minutes of the episode, in fact. It’s pretty much the entire point of the series.)
XOXO, Gossip Gay
OK, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, we can finally dish about the new Gossip Girl.
Even though only some critics have seen the new series and all were barred from talking about it until now, there are already so many opinions and judgments about it. It’s “woke,” and that ruins things, apparently. (Though the word “woke” has been neutered of meaning to the extent that anything labeled as such is an immediate buzzkill.) It’s inclusive. It has a sharper commentary on privilege, which is both good and no fun. There are butts. Someone eats ass.
Like any good rumor, it’s all somewhat true. But they also disguise the real story. The new Gossip Girl, coming nine years after the original stopped scandalizing pop culture’s pearl clutchers and delighting naughty teens, is a lot of fun.
Is it good? Was Gossip Girl ever? It doesn’t so much toe the line between soap opera and camp as it wobbles so dramatically that you fear it will fall to an ugly, violent death. Save for a handful of dynamic performances—Thomas Doherty’s bisexual chaos agent Max has us wondering how any of us ever swooned for Ed Westwick’s Chuck Bass—the acting is egregiously wooden. I suppose that should be nostalgic for fans of the original show…
But here’s the thing. Like any great legacy institution, perhaps like the very gilded-cage Manhattan private schools it salaciously voyeurs, the new Gossip Girl fastidiously holds on to the traditions of its past. Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Nate Archibald, and Dan Humphrey are immediately name-checked and paid homage. The series imitates the madcap way those kids' drama felt urgent and real in a heightened, ludicrous environment, creating a soothingly ridiculous tone that is instantly recognizable.
Yet in 2021, one obviously can’t replicate that original series’ approach to privilege, wealth, and indulgence, one that skipped through escapism, exploitation, and even celebration depending on the episode or mood. We’re too evolved for that now.
Sure, the leaning in when it comes to racial, sexual, and gender diversity might seem performative or excessive at first glance—hey, it’s those legacy institutions again! But whatever else there is to say about the new Gossip Girl, its charge into the volatile discourse around those issues is confident and clever.
If the questions for any revival or reboot are “why bother?” or “why now?”, this series delivers satisfying answers to both.
The major pivot, one that is probably going to be controversial and is the answer to my Gossip Gay entry above, is the swift reveal of the identity of Gossip Girl in the first act of the revival’s first episode. Fans of the original series waited until the finale to find out who the Hedda Hopper of Constance Billard was. Now, we watch Dan Humphrey’s successor at the moment she decides to assume his pseudonym.
It’s a shrewd twist for a modern continuation. Then, Gossip Girl was a threat, operating in everyone’s fear that their affairs and secrets would be publicized and the amplification used to shame them. Now, it’s a tool. In the digital age, there’s no use in trying to hide skeletons in the closet. They’re going to come out, so the challenge becomes how to control the narrative once they do. It’s about manipulation and control, not intimidation. The Gossip Girl throughline is always as it has been: Image.
The twist to the twist is that the new Gossip Girl is not one of the impossibly attractive and horny new teen cast members, either. (One last warning not to read on if you don’t want to know the “big reveal,” as much as a reveal within the first 20 minutes of a series can be.) It’s one of the school’s teachers, played by Tavi Gevinson, who revives the anonymous antagonizer.
(HBO Max initially wanted to keep the identity a secret in reviews, but it is so paramount to what makes the show good and/or bad—and, again, is revealed so early in the show—that critics rebelled against the ask.)
Gossip Girl is, at its heart, a series about the tension between power and scandal. On a sliding scale, the original teetered toward the latter. This revival is all about the former.
In the decade since Serena, Blair, et. al. left TV screens, the students at Constance Billard have seized control. In the era of the influencer, they’re even famous, none more so than Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), who can make or end lives with one Instagram post. That dominion extends to the staff at school.
The central plot point of the series, for example, is that Julien orchestrated her secret half-sister’s (Whitney Peak’s Zoya Lott) scholarship acceptance and now she must deal with the ensuing havoc in her family and in the school’s halls. But collaterally, the students’ power also encompasses the ability to have teachers fired for not catering to them and their parents’ whims.
Gevinson’s Kate Keller sees this as an injustice, an abuse of wealth and power that could ruin her life. Sensing that the students’ egos have gotten out of hand, she and a group of fellow teachers study Gossip Girl’s old posts and take her voice to Instagram, using rumors they collect as flies on the wall in the students’ lives to guilt the kids into good behavior—or at the very least, having a conscience. “We’re supposed to send them out of here as Barack Obamas instead of Brett Kavanaughs,” she opines; a great line.
This is Gossip Girl, so obviously there are love triangles and betrayals and backstabbing and upsettingly grown-up teen machinations. Some of those threads titillate. Some are incredibly dumb. Which is to say, it is every bit the soap opera you’d expect.
Those are the diversions that hook you in each episode. Aforementioned Thomas Doherty’s Max and his pursuit of his hot, gay teacher (Jason Gotay), for one, is the perfect balance of retrograde and somewhat fresh when it comes to the student-teacher affair storylines that are inevitable in this genre of TV show. But these diversions only work because they’re bolstered by some actually heady thematics.
The very idea of gossip is tenuous and vexing at a time when unsubstantiated assumptions become fact just by being articulated online. (The Instagram account Deuxmoi, which publishes proudly unverified celebrity gossip, is namechecked early in the series.) The students at Constance Billard don’t just feel pressured to project a fabulous image in the halls and at New York’s hot spots, they have to do it online, too.
Showing up to a party without an invitation, as Serena does in the original’s pilot, is no longer the most efficient means of social suicide. Now, it’s failing to properly curate your social media presence or not being woke in the correct way. There’s a brief plot point in which a character is almost canceled via a tweet from Jameela Jamil.
How do you remain authentic in an age when identities are entirely curated? What does that do to connection? To power and authority? And even when it comes to Gossip Girl herself, how do you spread rumors at a time when a bitchy Instagram can be spammed by bots into irrelevance?
These are ideas other series often glance at and are even applauded for having the smarts to consider. But for all the cattiness, teen angst, and bathhouse shower scenes (insert eyes emoji) of the Gossip Girl revival, it is also elevated by an impressive interrogation of those ideas.
I don’t know, necessarily, if it’s useful to read about or know a creator’s intentions when watching a series, but while screening the first four episodes provided to critics, I kept thinking about what the revival’s creator, Joshua Safran, told my colleague Marlow Stern in an interview discussing the backlash when it was revealed that, unlike in the original, the kids in this series are aware of their privilege—something that fans sight unseen assumed would ruin the escapist fun of the show.
“Just because you’re aware of your privilege doesn’t mean you don’t abuse it,” he said. “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.”
It’s actually a fascinating nuance, even in a show as silly as this. The original centered around the intoxicating fantasy of what it would be like to have the money, the clothes, the sex, and the access of the young one percent, followed by the sobering realization that they have the same struggles with family, relationships, and self-worth as the rest of us. That awareness now reverberates through every interaction and, yes, Instagram post. Our superficial age has unintentionally created an inherently complex Gossip Girl.
I wouldn’t presume to know what anyone’s expectations are for the new series. I was pleasantly surprised by it, a twist that may not be shocking enough to get Gossip Girl the likes she would want on a new post—but worth noting, nonetheless.