The original Gossip Girl, no matter its eventual identity, was first and foremost an agent of chaos. Dropping juicy details about the private lives of Manhattan’s rich and popular youth for all to see, the blog/narrator voiced by Kristen Bell was built to manufacture continuous confrontation; whether its posts were dabbling in truth or rumor didn’t matter. Its perpetual mission — to knock the privileged (teenage) elite off their comfy pedestals — guaranteed new embarrassments, complications, and celebrations were always a click away.
Having an omniscient, unshakable meddler creating conflict makes for extremely watchable television, and the original “Gossip Girl” was exactly that (for a while). Built from the bones of “The O.C.” by their shared writers-turned-co-creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the 2007 CW soap followed a (very) similar route to success as Fox’s 2003 hit. It offered a glimpse of big-city glamour most kids can only dream about, while keeping the core character arcs rooted in love triangles and teen anxieties. Sure, we all know what your typical prom entails, but what if all that nervous, hormonal energy was wrapped in tailcoats at a masked ball on the Upper West Side?
With Gossip Girl and her affluent teen readers returning for the HBO Max reboot, it’s kind of astounding to discover that the new “Gossip Girl” has a serious drama problem: There isn’t nearly enough of it. Lost amid the series’ glossy sheen depicting the modern world of Manhattan money is the angry anarchist throwing bricks through penthouse windows. By and large, the kids are quite kind. The titular blog (now on Instagram) is often conflicted about what to share and why they’re sharing it. The class divide, first embodied by Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), is even less noticeable now, despite the urgency felt in the real world.
Is this not 2021? Is America not in the midst of a class war, fueled by the 1 percent’s immoral greed and racist traditionalism? Is HBO Max not the sister network of HBO, home to TV’s seething satire of the uber-wealthy (and only good show) “Succession”? Through four episodes, the new “Gossip Girl” is perplexingly nice, raising issues that are far too neat, predictable, and tame. It’s reluctant to engage in the high school social struggles that made its predecessor so relatable, and it’s not eager to understand how these woke teens engage with a world rightly suspicious of their inherited power. You’d be forgiven for thinking the reboot took a trip back to more peaceful times, if not for the fact that even less rebellious eras still surfaced enough pressing concerns to create real drama.
Developed by Joshua Safran, a writer and executive producer on the original series, “Gossip Girl” 2.0 centers on Julien “JC” Calloway (Jordan Alexander), the daughter of fedora’d record producer (Luke Kirby) with “more Grammys than Diplo and Calvin Harris combined.” Though JC grew her following as the little girl who interviewed daddy’s celebrity clients, her brand has its own autonomous identity now. Aided by two fierce advisors (and maybe, sort of friends), she curates her life to appeal to followers and expand her influence. “You have to be strategic about the way you present yourself to the world,” she says, after taking meticulously posed beauty shots for the first day of school and waiting for her boyfriend, Obie (Eli Brown), to get cleaned up so he can guest on her Instagram Story.
Her scruffy young man is only in need of cleaning because he spent the morning protesting his parents’ company, alongside their working class employees. Certainly, at some point, this ideological split between parents and child will come to a head, but for now Obie isn’t hiding his disdain for his unnamed namesake’s anti-union policies, and his parents don’t care that he’s on the front line, handing out breakfast sandwiches. They only exist as an unseen, unheard, yet vaguely oppositional force, while all JC cares about is a) that Obie looks good in pictures, and b) his humanitarian efforts help balance out her high-fashion modeling gigs and late-night spends at exclusive clubs.
But JC is no Blair Waldorf; unlike Leighton Meester’s iconic tyrant, she isn’t willing to do anything for added clout. Much like anyone who crafts an online life envied by millions, JC is very aware of what her choices look like — but so are the “Gossip Girl” writers. It’s rare to see JC riled up, even in private, and rarer that it lasts, which makes her seem as inauthentic and distanced as an actual Influencer. Only, we’re supposed to be seeing the real her, not just the version she oh-so-carefully frames. (One telling scene starts as an on-stage attempt to lightly embarrass someone, only to have JC apologize halfway through — she isn’t even allowed to let her emotions take control for one speech.)
Karolina Wojtasik / HBO Max
Scenes with her half-sister (and co-lead) Zoya, played by Whitney Peak, come closest to feeling real and could develop into a worthy substitute for Blair and Serena (Blake Lively in the original series). Not part of the rich island crowd, Zoya is a Buffalo transfer who scored an unexpected scholarship to JC’s school. (Can you guess how?!) While JC’s friend group skews neutral-to-frosty toward welcoming a freshman into their elite circle, the long-separated siblings concoct a scheme to win them over.
If all that sounds a little low-stakes for a drama about hormonal millionaires, it is, and there are more stories like it. Filling out the cast, Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind) and Aki (Evan Mock) are long-time monogamists starting to get bored together, yet reticent to admit it. They’re both keen on Max (Thomas Doherty), who enjoys hooking up with anyone and everyone he pleases, but it’s unclear if either actually likes him, or if they just like what he represents (i.e., anything new). Either way, there’s no reason to fret over anyone’s feelings getting hurt; they’re all too close, too open, and too understanding to let down their friends. (Doherty, continuing the genre’s grand tradition of 26-year-olds playing high schoolers, is not only convincing enough in his youthful arrogance, but makes the most of the only genuine, dramatic story arcs so far.)
“Gossip Girl” seems more interested in commenting on the old show than establishing a new one worth watching. Problems abound in the original series, and you don’t have to look far to find them. Chuck Bass, one of the leads, tries to rape two women in the pilot, which would be acceptably villainous behavior if not for his best bro — Nate Archibald, who in the reboot is listed right after Colson Whitehead among distinguished Constance Billard graduates — condoning multiple sexual assaults as Chuck being Chuck, as boys being boys. Similarly icky and unintentional endorsements emerge in the show’s treatment of female friendships as well as its very white framework, so it’s exciting to see just how progressively polished the reboot can be: sex positive, across-the-board diverse, and supportive… to a fault.
Aside from two pot stirrers whose motivations are as simple as their nowhere-near-grand-enough grand ambitions, all of these characters mainly want to do the right thing. They’re eager to accept their friends’ flaws, forgive their temporary misunderstandings, and move forward rather than dwell on transgressions — they see gossip as an ugly habit of past generations, which may set a good example for future teens, but it doesn’t feel truthful and it makes for bad television. If the “Gossip Girl” reboot wants to set a better example than its predecessor by depicting gossip as an insidious toxicity, it still needs conflict. Where are the foils? The bad apples? The lonely boys and mean girls? Does growing up with unimaginable wealth and inherited power not create any problems? If not (which is hard to believe), shouldn’t we at least be able to invest in their romantic pursuits or professional ambitions?
“Gossip Girl” ends up as a series built on absence; there’s no Serena and Dan, so no central romance; there’s no Serena vs. Blair, which means no central conflict; Gossip Girl is there to evoke a reaction, but these kids are refusing to play along. Without any interior drama from the characters or exterior commentary about their place in society, “Gossip Girl” 2.0 feels as glossy, buttoned up, and boring as its influencer’s Instagram page.
“Gossip Girl” premieres Thursday, July 8 on HBO Max. New episodes will be released weekly.