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America loves a comeback. Whether it’s Joe Biden or Richard Nixon being elected president decades after they were left on the political scrapheap, Johnny Cash teaming with Rick Rubin for his American Recordings series or that unlikely Deadwood wrap-up movie that somehow finally got made.
But not every comeback is successful. Nobody talks about Mark Spitz trying to qualify for the 1992 Olympics or Walter Monday’s 2002 Senate run. Everybody does their best to pretend that Arrested Development was a three-season classic that aired on Fox and definitely never aired two seasons of Netflix originals.
Not quite a bloated athlete past their peak, but definitely not a brand-redefining triumph, HBO Max’s reboot of Gossip Girl is half bland rehash of the soapy beats from the original series and half perplexing but semi-ambitious premise-overhaul that the series isn’t prepared to fully engage in. More than anything, this new Gossip Girl just feels behind the curve, a meek attempt to keep pace with shows like HBO Max’s Generation or Netflix’s Elite — shows that never would have existed in the first place without Gossip Girl.
Boasting much of the same creative team from the original series, including showrunner Joshua Safran and original series co-creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, Gossip Girl takes us back to Constance Billard, where privileged students are trained to follow their parents as titans of industry and mainstays of Page 6.
The school’s Queen Bee is Julien (Jordan Alexander), Instagram superstar and daughter of a music industry mogul (Luke Kirby, one of several adults continuing that Gossip Girl tradition of making you feel old). Julien is dating rich-guy-with-a-conscience Obie (Eli Brown) and her crew includes amiably scheming sidekicks Monet (Savannah Smith) and Luna (Zion Moreno) — one is Black, one is tall and neither, through four episodes sent to critics, has a definable voice — as well as Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind), who’s stuck in a boring, loving, monogamous relationship with Aki (Evan Mock). Stirring things up is reptilian, louche, pansexual Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), whose aggressively on-the-nose name could only be more obvious if the writers had chosen to call him “Buck Chass.”
Stirring up immediate trouble is the arrival of Zoya (Whitney Peak), a new girl from Buffalo. Julien and Zoya both have single dads and they both stare wistfully at the exact same picture of a woman staring off into the middle distance. This is because Zoya and Julien are half-sisters. Will they get along and form a study group or will they instigate a war that threatens to tear their insular community asunder? Let’s just say that if it were the former, Gossip Girl would be a boring show. Or at least a more boring show.
Stirring up potentially more trouble is the return of Gossip Girl herself, still voiced by Kristen Bell. In the original series, Gossip Girl’s identity was treated as a mystery, one that was meant to keep you guessing all the way until the somewhat nonsensical revelation in the series finale. It was dumb, but it kept some people busy, when they weren’t also rooting for a date-raping cad who traded his girlfriend for a hotel to find romantic love.
If “Who Is Gossip Girl?” was the driving question of the original series, “What Is Gossip Girl?” is the central question of the new show. HBO Max would prefer critics not spoil the specifics, which I’m fine with, but I’ll say that the resurrection of Gossip Girl as an entity takes place fairly early in the first episode, along with a slew of references to the original characters. It’s basically the premise of the show, in fact, and it’s a premise that is going to irritate as many people as it tantalizes.
Personally, I found the Gossip Girl twist (which isn’t a twist) to be the most interesting part of the new series, because it raises big sociological questions about the role social media plays as a tool of social control. If Gossip Girl were a smarter show, the premise would be a gateway for discussion of Michel Foucault and panopticism and a bunch of high-minded stuff that I’m very much aware nobody other than me would want.
But Gossip Girl is not and has never been a smart show. Sometimes it’s a clever show and the cleverness here is dedicated to the usual relentless references to New York intelligentsia and pop cultural ephemera. So Gossip Girl remains a show that can build an entire episode around characters going to the new play by Jeremy O. Harris, and can wrangle a Harris cameo, but is not going to go deep on contemporary life as an ever-monitored prison.
Safran’s decision to set the new Gossip Girl in a post-COVID world in which the kids are returning to in-person schooling after a year of virtual learning offers the same tease of unrealized potential. The questions about how that year was spent, how the isolation impacted even the most privileged of teens and what it means to return to in-person social interaction in a world where virtual interaction is ubiquitous are good ones that you can ask alone on your couch.
It’s possible that hinting at smartness and not delivering irks me even more than just being complacent, because dramatically the rest of the show is very, very complacent. Early episodes offer multiple perfunctory love triangles; countless flimsy farcical misunderstandings in which drama could have been avoided by having normal conversations; and the same Gossip Girl-as-needling-instigator stuff from the original. There are nods to some of the crazier plotlines from the first series — Blair’s engagement to a prince, Dan Humphrey’s publication in The New Yorker — so it’s hard not to recognize how not-very-outlandish the complications are; multiple episodes ended in a way so resolved and conclusive I was like, “So… that’s it?”
Moving to streaming lets Gossip Girl stretch episodes to full attention-challenging hours, dabble in swearing, amp up the sexuality to a level still short of what you might see on FX or USA and add scattered nudity — but only scattered since most of the characters are still under 18. Of course, it’s hard to take any of the characters seriously as “under 18” because most of them, especially the dudes, look closer to 30.
The general casting of the men is below CW standard. Brown is Penn Badgley-lite. Doherty is Ed Westwick-lite. And Mock is basically hunky Archie from Riverdale. None of them have any chemistry with their love interests and if part of the point of this new series was expanding from the very white, very heteronormative parameters of the original, nothing is dynamically different.
The women are a bit more interesting. Alexander at least is completely believable as the sort of young woman who might attain online celebrity. Lind is truly funny on a show that often seems unsuccessfully to be going for humor (with Tavi Gevinson as the other performer who made me chuckle a few times).
When the cast expands beyond its “teenage” protagonists, it exhibits depth, not that the likes of Kirby, Laura Benanti, Donna Murphy and John Benjamin Hickey are being adequately utilized.
Elizabeth Lail plays a supporting role and offers a confusing reminder that she was once stalked by Penn Badgely in You, another show that probably couldn’t have existed without the original Gossip Girl yet set a standard for tawdry, delicious trashiness that the new version lacks the gumption to approach. I found myself thinking about that a lot over these four episodes, in which HBO Max’s Gossip Girl gives hints that there might be reasons for this comeback. But only hints.
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