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Gossip Girl was absurd and over the top – the reboot is just weird

The original show understood that we didn’t watch Gossip Girl to like its characters. The reboot doesn’t give us the same space, writes Clémence Michallon

Tuesday 13 July 2021 16:07
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<p>Evan Mock, Thomas Doherty, Emily Alyn Lind, Eli Brown, Jordan Alexander, Savannah Smith, and Zion Moreno in the ‘Gossip Girl’ reboot</p>

Evan Mock, Thomas Doherty, Emily Alyn Lind, Eli Brown, Jordan Alexander, Savannah Smith, and Zion Moreno in the ‘Gossip Girl’ reboot

If anyone was going to love the Gossip Girl reboot, it was going to be me. I was a teenager when the original show aired, roughly the same age as Blair, Serena et al. The high school I attended was publicly funded but wanted to rival the Constance Billards of the world as far as academics were concerned. When the original Gossip Girl kids were applying to university, so was I – and when Blair got rejected from her dream college, so did I. If that’s not synergy, I don’t know what is.

The similarities between my life and the Gossip Girl cast ended there – obviously – but that was the point. No one watches this kind of glossy melodrama to see themselves on the screen. While the Gossip Girl kids did designer drugs, avoided public transport like the plague, and rolled around satin sheets in Agent Provocateur lingerie, I rode the Paris Metro (the one thing Blair Waldorf might have envied about my life: I grew up in Paris) to buy H&M knockoffs of Blair’s headbands or Serena’s boots. I didn’t do drugs. When I went out, I was home by 11.

Gossip Girl was a window into a different world – one that I’m pretty sure never existed outside the confines of the books and series (I’ve never been an obscenely wealthy teenager in New York City, but no one actually lives like that, right?). The show had its flaws, but it was a fun place to inhabit for a few hours a week.

All this to say, when HBO Max announced its Gossip Girl reboot, I was primed to love it. I’m a Millennial! I’m about to turn 30! If there ever was a time for me to cast a nostalgic eye at my own teenage years, that time is now. Knowing that Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (co-creators of the original show) were going to be involved in the reboot, along with Joshua Safran (one of its executive producers) was a great sign. And casting Tavi Gevinson, the original influencer, who herself became New York royalty right around the time the original show started making headlines? That seemed delightfully meta. I was ready to love what I thought would be a wry, self-aware, ironic take on the series of my youth.

But alas, the reboot’s pilot didn’t live up to those expectations. It does some things right – certainly it was a good move to feature a more diverse cast and make the show less heteronormative. Aside from that, though, it never quite figures out what it’s trying to be – an acerbic tribute to the original show? A critique of it? A bit of both?

Too often, it’s neither. Set at Constance Billard and St Jude’s, the same two schools attended by the OG cast, this iteration of Gossip Girl takes place nearly a decade after the original show wrapped up. The characters are new, but they’re also versions of the previous ones. Julien, our lead character, has Blair’s queen bee tendencies but Serena’s cool girl DNA. Her half-sister Zoya is the Dan of the situation, although she can also be read as a Vanessa. Max is a less problematic version of Chuck.

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Perhaps most shockingly, in this version, the identity of Gossip Girl is clear from the get-go: it’s (spoiler alert) the private school teachers, who, tired of being mistreated by their students, decide to mess with them by reviving the platform that wreaked havoc on their predecessors’ lives. That choice has so far proven controversial among viewers and critics; I, for one, don’t hate it. There’s something Ryan Murphy-esque about a group of underpaid teachers choosing to enact revenge on their young tormentors in the strangest way possible. Of course, if it were to happen in real life, it would be a scandal, but this isn’t real life. It’s Gossip Girl, and it’s not fun unless it’s a bit unhinged.

The reboot makes many direct references to the original. The teachers discuss Gossip Girl’s former blog like it’s a short story at a creative writing workshop. Nate Archibald gets a shoutout – Gevinson’s character Kate (an English teacher, and the ringleader of the aforementioned revenge plot) seems to remember him as one of the “great people” raised by St Jude’s, so I guess his career as a newspaper owner and potential New York City mayor is going well. Inspired by Blair and Serena’s former friendship-cum-rivalry, the teachers decide to use their own Gossip Girl account to pit Julien and Zoya against each other – with some immediate success.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle, but the execution feels lacklustre. The original characters each came with their own tortured backstories from the pilot onwards. This new cast doesn’t get the same treatment. Not making them carbon copies of their 2000s versions is a wise choice, but they end up stuck in limbo, not quite taking off on their own. The reboot relies heavily on fans’ loyalty to the original – aren’t all those meta mentions of it exciting? – but doesn’t bring its own strengths to the table.

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The original Gossip Girl routinely strained credulity. It was over-the-top, unapologetically so, but it also had moments of true heart. It was a teenage show that remained true to its teenage self, and as such, it was volatile, prone to fights and absurd conflicts and escalating plot lines. It was absurd, and it stopped working after a few seasons, but when it worked, it really worked.

Penn Badgley, Blake Lively, and Leighton Meester at a Gossip Girl press event on 20 July 2007 in Beverly Hills, California

Crucially, the original show understood that we didn’t watch Gossip Girl to like its characters. It gave us ample room to despise them and then start liking them again. Blair, Serena, Jenny (oh my God, remember JENNY?), Chuck, Nate, and even the ever-principled Dan all cycled through a series of redemption arcs before acting horribly again: redeem, relapse, rinse, repeat. The reboot doesn’t give us the same space. Its characters are more reasonable, their motivations more noble. They’re better people, probably, but they don’t light the plot on fire the way their predecessors did.

This show tries to make more thoughtful points than the original did when it comes to the mega wealthy. For now, it doesn’t entirely know what it’s trying to say, but there is hope for future episodes. The writing takes off at times, with nice zingers like, “Twitter is a glorified chat room for meme sharing, conspiracy theorists, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.” There are points to be made, and the corrosive writing to support them is there. It all just needs to come together.

Look at Succession. For two seasons (soon to be three!) the satire, also an HBO property, has offered a blistering illustration of the excesses and idiosyncrasies of the megarich. And it did that without ever trying to convince us that Kendall, Shiv, or Roman were good people. Of course, the characters in Gossip Girl are teenagers, so it makes sense for them not to be judged quite so harshly. But this is a TV show! It’s meant to be an outlet for something. It’s meant to be a path to the outrageous, the unexpected, the selfish. Maybe what the new Gossip Girl kids really need is to take a page out of their teachers’ book.

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