What the Hell Is Going On with the Gossip Girl Reboot?
The buzziest show of the year is dying a slow death, dragging its paper thin characters, zero dramatic stakes, and nonsensical writing with it. How could a surefire hit fall so quickly and so hard?
It should’ve been so easy. Not only did the 2021 iteration of Gossip Girl have six seasons and 121 episodes of the original series to use as both a structural and narrative roadmap to determine what could and couldn’t work for a new era, but moving from a network to a premium streaming platform would mean that show could be sexier, raunchier, crueler, and as vulgar as it wants to be. Instead, what we’ve ended up with is a flailing, scatterbrained reboot that has been meandering down a road to nothing for six straight episodes, relying on style, name dropping, and copious amounts of money to distract viewers from the fact that it has absolutely no idea what it’s doing or why it even has a reason to exist.
Maybe it really was doomed from the start. The original Gossip Girl is so genuinely juicy, so stupidly salacious, and so unabashedly batshit that it went from mainstream hit to cult status and back to beloved zeitgeisty nostalgia, all before the ten-year anniversary of its premiere in 2007. The CW’s iteration landed at the exact perfect time; a huge technological shift was changing the way everyone communicated, and the combination of MySpace and dishy celebrity gossip blogs made the show about an anonymous blogger taking down snobby, backstabbing rich kids a perfect fit for viewers looking for something that would allow them to delight in both glamorous wish fulfillment and seeing pretty people get taken down a peg or ten. With a cast made up of relative unknowns hungry to prove themselves in an extensively hyped vehicle adapted from a beloved book series, there was simply no way Gossip Girl could fail. Even after it stopped being “good,” it was still great. This was a show that truly benefitted from the now-outmoded 22-episode season, with so much space and time to fill, drama and bitchy witticisms had to be doled out like thousands of dollars on a Dior saddle bag—generously and often.
The formula was there. The fans were hungry for more after Generation Z spent the better half of the 2010s discovering the original show on Netflix. The money was flowing beyond control. So why, oh why, does the new Gossip Girl feel like weeks of torment, too insipid to even get really excited about? Well, there are simply so many reasons.
I hate to besmirch the writing as the show’s most flagrant problem, but the number of general inconsistencies, threadbare character arcs, and what seems to be a genuine misunderstanding of what makes Gossip Girl so damn fun leads me to believe that the writer’s room over at HBO Max’s Gossip Girl is extremely disjointed, with maybe half the writing staff possible fans of the original and half brought in for the clout of hiring verified badge Twitter media elite, friends of showrunner Joshua Safran. It’s clear that this was not exactly a question of who are the best people for the job, but who can help stir up the most viewership. I also say this because it’s apparent to the point of annoyance that the new Gossip Girl exists largely to kowtow to the remaining empire of New York media. Name-checking New York Magazine in the show is fine, but real-life premiere parties and Gossip Girl events with guest lists comprised of the same circle of New York media names that are all close friends with the writing staff is so ironic that it’s almost hysterical. For a show that’s supposed to be about rich people who are bred to gatekeep their wealth, status, and circle of friends, the HBO Max PR team seems to be doing just that with their own show. All of the purported ideas of the reboot being about how rich kids are now contending with modern social media’s tirade against wealth inequality and nepotism should be an opportunity to create new, exciting, risk-taking ways to promote your show. Instead, things are being kept in the same old boring circle of voices, making the new Gossip Girl feel like it exists as simply an excuse for the New York media elite to have fun and party together, patting themselves on the back the whole time for being a part of the reboot instead of trying to actually make said reboot watchable.
And I’ve tried to give the benefit of the doubt, I really have. I was more than game for the first few episodes and genuinely enjoyed being thrust back into this world for a bit. But the number of glaring inconsistencies combined with the truly incomprehensible plot structure has worn me down. Why did we just spend an entire episode of this reboot with a character’s mom in the hospital without ever learning what landed her in urgent care? It’s literally never said. What’s the point in watching Emily Alyn Lind—one of the few actors who seems to have come in understanding that Gossip Girl succeeds when its melodrama is played with complete stonefaced seriousness, but more on that in a moment—skulking around the hospital and berating nurses if I don’t even know what the hell her mother is recovering from! It’s absolutely SHOCKING. One week earlier, I’m left wondering for the entire duration of the episode why the hell these kids’ Halloween party is called “Hulaween.” It’s never explained! A quick Google search gets me no results other than that also being the title of some music festival in Florida. Half of the time, the new Gossip Girl makes me feel like I’m constantly being gaslit into feeling like I should be understanding what’s happening in front of me because its writers had some conversation about it that never made it into the finished episode, and the other half of the time I’m being gaslit into thinking that the character of Julien Calloway has any kind of clout or power at all when there’s no evidence to suggest anything of the sort.
It’s actually astonishing how the character who was touted as the new pack leader, a sort of combination of both Serena Van Der Woodsen’s irresistibly magnetic charm and Blair Waldorf’s power-hungry striving, is perhaps the biggest dud of them all (well, besides the truly insufferable Obie). Julien’s entire storyline so far has been all tell and no show—for an influencer who supposedly has all this money, all these followers, and all this ability to strike fear and jealousy in the hearts of her classmates and Instagram audience, we’ve seen none of her true influence actually play out in the context of the show. For all the clamoring her minions do to keep her socials updated and her audience satiated, there’s never any actual indication of why she must do these things or what will happen if she doesn’t. The girl only started to consider sponsorships in episode six! And for what it’s worth, I can tell that Jordan Alexander is trying with all of her might to give Gossip Girl 1.0, but the writing for her character just will not allow it. There’s no sense of danger or volatility to Julien, no particular reason that she should be anything other than a side character in a show that has her first-billed. She simply has no teeth. I was cringing and screaming with laughter at the very same time watching her give a speech about being a bully in episode four. This has to be some of the stupidest writing I have ever seen. It would be excusable if it were all part of a larger grift, like Blair Waldorf throwing Serena under the bus in episode three of the original series when she calls her a teenage drug addict in front of a bunch of Ivy League reps, but to walk off stage and have the moment you told everyone to film you saying you’re a bully be a completely earnest plot point? What is this, 2011?
But perhaps my biggest gripe with 2021’s Gossip Girl so far is that it feels dead on arrival by being so singularly uninspired, desperate to set itself apart from its beloved predecessor while confusingly relying on the first series the entire time. Just four episodes in, after realizing they’ve failed to create a show with any kind of unique voice or perspective, Gossip Girl brings in the son of Georgina Sparks, the original series’ infamous shit-stirrer, to cause some trouble that ends up entirely resolved by the end of the episode. While it makes for a fun gag and a silly opportunity to get an idea of what Georgina would be up to now, your show should NOT be bringing in tertiary characters from the original series four episodes in to create some tension and flavor. Reliance on the old show’s greatness to breathe life into a reboot is simply not going to cut it, not with all that HBO money and so much potential going untapped.
When it’s not referencing beloved characters of the past to keep its viewers entertained, it treats the audience like we’re morons, spoon-feeding us plotlines and twists like we’re children. In episode three, the best of the series so far, we get our first bit of real tension and stakes (before, of course, almost all of it is dashed away by the closing credits): at the preview of a new Jeremy O. Harris play—shocker! another cameo to distract us from a lack of plot—Julien gets her father to run into his secret girlfriend, Max invites the teacher he’s trying to screw to meet up with one of his fathers who is secretly on Scruff, and Audrey balances her secret of having recently fucked Max and Aki, both in attendance. This kind of climactic moment is something the original Gossip Girl did so well, keeping several storylines moving and colliding in a display of televised teen soap theatre. Except in the new Gossip Girl, we’re told explicitly, multiple times that this sequence is a play within a play. Yes, I know! As a viewer, I am smart enough to understand that technique! Why are you explaining to me the narrative style that’s happening on the show that’s playing out before my very eyes? I’ve got it, everyone’s got it, but your decision to lay it out so plainly in words tarnishes the excitement and fun of the entire sequence. The writers’ insistence on telling us what they’re doing at all times is not only exhausting but wholly distrusting. They want so badly for this Gossip Girl to be smarter and more self-aware, but they don’t believe in the viewer’s ability to contend that with the original show’s merits, making the new version sloppy and vacuous—and not in a fun way.
This is most evidenced by the final scene of the midseason finale, which aired last week. While attending a protest for a homeless shelter that’s about to be demolished, Julien and Obie become so worked up by the thrill of the moment that they simply must dash away to an alley (something New York doesn’t have) and make out. They’re so sexually charged by the scare of the riot police and the flashing searchlights of helicopters that they’ve got to tongue it out, right then and there. Kissing in front of a protest is the kind of thing that seems so ridiculously tone-deaf that it would be the kind of thing that the Gossip Girl writers would defend, saying, “Of course they kissed at a protest! That’s the point. Rich people don’t really care about these things.” But there lies the problem: the writers have spent six episodes trying to constantly hammer it into our brains that the new generations of Constance Billard/St. Judes students are woke, progressive, and forward-thinking. They have been so desperate to convince us of that, so hellbent on working it into the story as much as possible, that I just could not buy that defense. You’ll let your characters make out while people get teargassed but you won’t let them do a little good old-fashioned slut-shaming? Come on.
Gossip Girl’s insistence on incorporating good social politics is perhaps its biggest downfall. Absolutely no one is tuning in to watch rich kids feel guilty about their wealth, allow their girlfriends to sleep with their best friends, and stand on stage to admit they’re a bully before Princess Nokia comes out to flex the show’s ginormous budget. In 2021, a year when literally everything feels more critical than ever, how can you allow a show like Gossip Girl to have absolutely no stakes? The drama isn’t drama, and when it comes close to the wanton spectacle of the original series, the writers pull back and solve everything, never ever letting us get to have a lick of fun. There is maybe one iconic music moment out of six episodes (you need drama to create those!), the twist that the reboot was predicated on is not a twist at all, and half of the actors in the cast don’t even realize what show they’re on. Not like they have much to draw from, as the writers don’t seem to understand that they’re making Gossip Girl either. How could the buzziest reboot of the new decade turn into HBO Max’s version of The Morning Show? Gossip Girl is drowning in the sludgy waters of the East River, and its only chance to save itself from sure death lies in its first season’s remaining six episodes, which start airing in November. At this point, I shudder with fear every time I think about them royally fucking up a classic GG Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s not too late to do some punch-ups with writers who actually understand the universe’s nature, because so far, this gossip is simply too stale to make it past the drafts.