The entertainment industry is in a golden age of reboots. Some stories, it seems, are compelling enough—after a few obligatory tweaks in style and tone—that an audience can be persuaded to make a repeat visit every five or 10 years. An incomplete list of such archetypes includes: A misanthropic clown commits crimes but has interesting reasons for doing so. Beset with bad health insurance, a chemistry teacher becomes a drug kingpin. Four female friends drink cosmos and have unrealistically large apartments in New York City. And on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, bloodthirsty cliques of teenagers party and scheme, surveilled by an anonymous blogger known as ”Gossip Girl.”
HBO’s Gossip Girl is a reboot of the 2007–12 CW show of the same name, which starred Blake Lively and Leighton Meester as best friends and rivals Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf. (The show was based on a series of novels by Cecily von Ziegesar.) Today’s Gossip Girl revival takes place in the same world—there are references to the accomplishments of characters in the original series, now adults—and follows a fresh cast of Constance Billard private school students who occupy many of the same roles. The central pair of rival-friends are now Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), a charismatic and wealthy influencer, and her half-sister Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), recently moved to New York City from Buffalo and thus uncool. Joining them are Obie Bergmann (Eli Brown), the vaguely anti-capitalist scion of a German real estate family, who appears in my notes as “fake DSA guy”; amoral bisexual Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty); and bored couple Audrey Hope (Emily Alyn Lind) and Aki Menzies (Evan Mock).
The most significant departure in the reboot involves the “Gossip Girl” blog itself. In the original show, the blog was secretly run by student Dan Humphrey, who was a central participant and observer of the events; in the 2021 version, it’s an Instagram account created by a cabal of teachers led by Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson, a noted blogger in her own right) to curb their students’ excesses. This leads straight into the ethical thicket you’d expect—at one point, a teacher uses the account to spread rumors that a student has an STI—but the problems with these posts are only briefly addressed. Instead, “Gossip Girl” is presented as a force for good, and its monitoring of rich teens is seen as inciting tough conversations and a more honest culture.
To get it out of the way: The new Gossip Girl is a mess. It’s tonally muddled, badly acted, and oddly tame and timid despite its over-the-top aesthetic. The clothes—one of the main reasons for watching the original series—are just OK in the reboot; to quote fashion YouTuber Mina Le, “I wasn’t impressed by them, but I wasn’t particularly angry.” The plot is meandering, the characterizations inconsistent. But Gossip Girl’s greatest sin is squandering the opportunity to update a narrative that, in some ways, fits better in 2021 than it did in 2007. As a story about the lengths to which people will go to maintain the attention of an audience, it fails to add insight—through either satire or documentation—to our understanding of the fickle tides of content.
A typical Gossip Girl episode goes like this: Things are tense but not openly hostile between Zoya and Julien. Their relationship is strained when Zoya suspects Julien of leaking personal information to “Gossip Girl,” and Julien’s henchmen execute a plan to force Zoya to leave New York. The half-sisters throw dueling parties to mark their territory (“If your party is loud enough, no one’s going to hear the sound of the bomb she’s trying to explode,” one of Julien’s henchmen advises). The parties are merged; the combined bash goes badly at first, and then well. Both half-sisters perform acts of public sabotage to “murder [each other] socially.” Then, after a heartfelt speech, they tearfully apologize and hug, returning to the same vague truce, their sins forgiven, the audience’s appetite for drama satiated, and with very little changed.
The characters of the original Gossip Girl were just as shallow. But the original show’s appeal came from how stalwartly the cast maintained patterns of callousness, competition, and deceit, even when they so often backfired, simply because it was more fun. At the center of both iterations is an ephemeral quality described in the aughts in terms of “relevance” and today in terms of “content”: the ability to make your life into something both interesting and frictionless enough for other people to consume. The gaze of “Gossip Girl” is the content-making gaze; to be name-dropped in one of its bitchy quips is a process of aggrandizement, the magnification of one’s most dramatic, polarizing qualities and the elision of the small and mundane. No wonder the Constance Billard teens poison each other’s food or sabotage fashion shows to remain in the blog’s crosshairs.
This sensibility may not be particularly inspiring, but at least it is interesting—or to borrow from 2007, “relevant” to contemporary culture and thus good material for a teen soap opera to riff on. The problem is that the new Gossip Girl never commits to that sensibility, vacillating between muddled cruelty and unsatisfying, earnest justifications. Never while watching a show have I wanted more fiercely to seize the original footage and recut the series as a satire, placing its best bits of observational comedy in sharper focus. There’s a line in the first episode in which Obie somberly reports that he was late for school because he brought gourmet doughnuts to a picket line; when a friend asks whether the development the protesters are picketing is owned by his family, Obie replies, “Yeah, it is. And they know exactly how I feel,” a statement breathtaking in its uselessness. Later, after Zoya confronts some of her friends’ parents about their business at an opulent meal, Obie chastises her: The way they operate “is wrong,” but, he emphasizes, “we’re at dinner”—dinner, of course, being the neutral Switzerland of the rich.
There’s more. A young socialite croons on social media, “Join us on Clubhouse, where we talk trauma. Invite only.” Julien quips about a florist influencer: “She’ll be a billionaire in 10 years—if there are still flowers, that is.” If only these lines had room to echo as the rich, capacious indictment they are, both of their speakers and their surroundings! These ideas matter only in their ability to show us how deeply screwed we are, how completely the inanity and callousness of wealth influences what we desire and inures us to what should shock us. Instead, the series takes pains to show that these are fundamentally good people: Other scenes depict Obie as sincere and self-aware, Julien as empathetic and principled. Julien gives a long, ad hoc speech about bullying after doing something cruel and absurd; after defending his parents, Obie goes to a protest against their development, toting a sign that reads “SHELTER FOR ALL.”
At least three monologues are devoted to the positive influence of “Gossip Girl” itself. One teacher behind the account opines that it “makes people talk face to face. It forces conversations that would never be had…. It isn’t just important, it’s vital.” A late-season plot point involves Kate Keller’s decision to abandon her literary career because she believes that running the “Gossip Girl” account offers a better way to have an impact on the world. In a manifesto posted to the account after a brief hiatus, “Gossip Girl” writes: “I’d begun to wonder if I was abusing my considerable power when I realized you’re the ones who do that, not me…. I’m your mirror.” The authors then go on to explain that the account is shutting off comments.
A mirror is not a bad metaphor for Gossip Girl, both the fictional social media account and the IRL show. Let’s use the vanity-plus-ring-light setup from which Julien streams on Instagram Live in the mornings as an example. The mirror image represents something basically real that has been angled and filtered to maintain its glamour, the unsightly bits left out of frame. The way this image has been cropped and skewed can be as informative as a more dispassionate gaze. It doesn’t have much documentary use, but it reveals the priorities and vulnerabilities of the beholder’s taste. It indicates what they consider good content—what engenders that bright, larger-than-life feeling—and what resists the impetus to make content entirely. (For example, a protest.) The view of the world it provides can be revealing.
When Gossip Girl holds up a mirror to its subjects, the resulting image is too unfocused to show us anything new. We see indulgence without abandon, self-disclosure without introspection. The show suffers the fate of a less-than-compelling Instagram Live stream: It makes it too easy to scroll away.