The New Gossip Girl Was Doomed to Fail
And the "twist" didn't help ...
(Minor spoilers, including the identity of Gossip Girl, ahead.)
The new Gossip Girl begins with an homage to its quick-witted headband-clad predecessor: the image of Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) wistfully (and glamorously) staring out a train window as she arrives at Grand Central is replaced by the visage of Constance Billard teacher Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson) riding the subway, peeking over her shoulder with the nervous uncertainty of a bonafide anti-Serena.
While this study in contrast may first echo showrunner Josh Safran's promise that "things have shifted" in regard to Gossip Girl's world of excess, the shift in question is not what it seems. The new, inclusive set of underaged Upper East Side elite is just as grossly monied and privileged as its Hampton-summering forefathers. And for the glossy first few minutes of the HBO Max pilot, it feels like we're right back where we left off. We pan Kim Kardashian-esque closets and regal dining rooms with gilded thrones. By the 2-minute mark we're watching impossibly beautiful teenagers have sex. We reunite with the disgruntled Kate as Serena-Blair Waldorf hybrid Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) inadvertently spills coffee all over her teacher's fast-fashion blouse. In response, token mean girl Luna La (Zión Moreno) calls for a school-wide banishment of all things Zara: "Zara: East of Lex only."
But just as my hopes began to soar, they were quashed by a single conversation in the teachers' lounge. The energy and sparkle of the original GG seeps from the screen as Kate and her coffee-stained blouse peel off to complain to her fellow teachers about their ungrateful students. A plan is hatched, and it's a bad one: the teachers will resurrect the one and only Gossip Girl in an attempt to get the superrich kids in line.
Less than 10 minutes in and the curtain has already been pulled — the great and powerful Wizard of Oz is but a 20-something high school English teacher with the blonde bob of a middle-aged soccer mom.
The question of Gossip Girl's identity lingered in the periphery throughout the original series, but it was more of a plot device than a plot point — it always took a backseat to the actual drama. Even the finale's eventual (nonsensical) reveal felt unnecessary. So to not only remove the mystery but insert an overseeing third party is … chaos? In the words of a friend who hoped for more: "I DON'T CARE WHO GOSSIP GIRL IS. I WANT NEW YORK GLAMOUR PORN."
Unfortunately, the ludicrous teacher storyline — complete with cringe-inducingly meta zingers like Kate deeming Chuck and Blair a figment of "pre-cancel culture" — is hardly the new Gossip Girl's only problem.
Part of the original series' fun was its self-awareness. It was satire masquerading as schlock. Try as it might to tap into its predecessor's balance of humor and hijinks, HBO Max's iteration struggles to feel like anything but a high-budget knockoff.
There's a thread of unearned sincerity that prevents the series from reaching its full potential. Storylines that could have been juicy and fun are weighed down by circular conversation (and boring teachers!). But it's not just the writing; it's the acting. Even the wittiest lines fail to land, giving the dialogue the unrehearsed air of a table-read. There's an almost voyeuristic disconnect between the script and actor — a behind-the-scenes mishap that mistakenly made it to air.
Safran told Variety that the new GG would have viewers more interested in being like the characters as opposed to wanting what they have, but in order to want to be like them I'd have to know who they are. Even the most flamboyant players feel like a slightly wooden caricature of one of the original show's main characters, defined by facade in lieu of anything legitimately relatable.
Watching the first episodes brings me back to Cosmopolitan's cover story with the cast, most of whom are best known for the viral stills in which they recreate a Gossip Girl rite of passage: lunch on the Met's hallowed steps. In the article, written months ahead of the show's launch, they speak of fame as though it's theirs for the taking. And while it probably is, this bloated anticipation is a symptom of the show's fatal flaw: it's just never going to live up to the hype.