The new Gossip Girl‘s press tour hinted at an ominous new theme for the franchise: a socially-conscious look at wealth and class among the Gen-Z elite. Considering the original show’s brand as an absurd orgy of soap opera feuds, this seemed like an undesirable new direction. Fortunately, HBO Max’s Gossip Girl is far less preachy than it sounds. While the new cast are more aware of their privilege (and more familiar with social justice buzzwords), the overall tone is as bitchy and ridiculous as ever, reveling in backstabbing plot-twists and ostentatious displays of wealth.
SHOWRUNNER: Joshua Safran
STREAMING: HBO Max
Borrowing the beloved ‘Gossip Girl’ formula of the late 2000s, this new reboot stars a new cast of super-rich Manhattan teenagers. Packed with soapy plot-twists and catty one-liners, it’s an appropriately self-aware revival for the Instagram era.
Starring a new generation of photogenic Manhattan teens, the new Gossip Girl is an indirect sequel to the original series (2007-2012). Some of the new characters borrow traits from the previous crew, centered around a Blair-and-Serena duo of estranged half-sisters: Instagram influencer Julien (Jordan Alexander) and middle-class freshman Zoya (Whitney Peak), a naive newcomer to the Manhattan elite. Pill-popping party boy Max (Thomas Doherty) is a more sympathetic riff on Chuck Bass, while Julien’s boyfriend Obie (Eli Brown) echoes the hypocritical reverse-snobbery of Dan Humphrey, a hipster who pretended to be above the petty rivalries of his classmates.
Introduced as one of the “nicer” characters, Obie is a poor-little-rich-boy who hands out donuts to strikers picketing his family business. But his political activism is kind of performative, geared toward soothing his class guilt. So while the new Gossip Girl kids are more aware of social issues—and more queer and more racially diverse than Blair and Serena’s social circle—they’re still just as sheltered, vindictive and self-absorbed. Each episode culminates in a glamorous party where 16-year-old socialites enact machiavellian schemes to undercut each other’s social cachet, revealing dark secrets and seducing each other’s partners. And, of course, everyone is obsessed with a Shade Room-style Instagram account known as Gossip Girl.
Kristen Bell’s pithy voiceover commentary is central to Gossip Girl‘s brand, and this time around, there’s a clever twist. Instead of being run by an anonymous writer, the new Gossip Girl account was launched by the school’s teachers, an amusing way to acknowledge millennial viewers who watched the original show. Led by Ms. Keller (Tavi Gevinson, who at 25 is the same age as some of the “teen” actors), these teachers reimagine Gossip Girl as a kind of Old Testament God, an all-seeing eye who will punish wrongdoers and (in theory) inspire the kids to behave.
The teachers are unexpected underdogs, bullied by wealthy pupils who can have them fired at the drop of a hat. But soon enough they get sucked into the addictive power of social media clout, using Gossip Girl to surveil and manipulate the lives of emotionally vulnerable teens. They’re also a bunch of uncool 30-somethings, dropping references to stuff like The Americans and Lin Manuel-Miranda—an explicit reminder that Millennials are now the older generation.
Compared to the hollow feminism of something like Netflix’s Sabrina, Gossip Girl’s “socially conscious” edge is thoughtfully done. Exposed to a culture of Twitter cancellations, Notes App apologies, and public debates about sexism and discrimination, it makes sense for these kids to be more politically clued-in than someone from the Paris Hilton generation. They’re also much more adept at controlling their own public image, with Zoya and Julien grappling over different ways to portray themselves “authentically” and gain power in the process. But that doesn’t mean the show is a hard-hitting drama, or that its main characters are better people than the generation that came before. The new Gossip Girl simply updates the original formula, offering a constant barrage of interpersonal drama and implausibly witty repartee. In other words, it’s definitely still Gossip Girl.
The first episode of Gossip Girl is now streaming on HBO Max, with new episodes releasing every Thursday.