After seven seasons of gleeful hedonism and wild twists on top of twists, TV’s first iteration of “Gossip Girl” ended with an anti-climax of true loves pairing off and one of the medium’s most nonsensical reveals, period. The show’s narrative had relied on a disembodied source of gossip (voiced by a purring Kristen Bell) to torture its self-involved characters for years without ever letting slip who it might be — and by the finale, it became clear that it never should have. Gossip Girl’s true identity made no sense from a logistical or emotional perspective to the point that it became ludicrous. It was remarkable to see “Gossip Girl” manage to push the soap staple of a hyperbolic betrayal past its breaking point right at the finish line, but at some point, that commitment to throwing everything at the wall was inherent to the show’s appeal, anyway.
Showrunner Joshua Safran, a writer-producer on the original “Gossip Girl,” doesn’t stray so far from the script that his HBO Max version becomes unrecognizable from the 2007 iteration created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. But he does immediately address one issue that plagued the previous “Gossip Girl” by flipping it on its head in a way that energizes the new one. This time, there will be no guessing games as to who Gossip Girl might be — at least not for the audience.
While the new generation of Constance Billiard and St. Jude’s students turn on each other, the show makes a bold choice by letting the viewers in on the secret from the start. I’m not allowed to get any more specific than that before the first episode drops on July 8. But within the parameters of what I can say, I will note that the successor to the Gossip Girl throne makes for a fascinating choice that could either crash into confusion or pay off big time. Either way, knowing the face behind the Instagram handle only ramps up the tension between the force of the anonymous surveillance account and its victims.
Outside of Gossip Girl as a revived cyberbully, the show expands the cast of core characters into a group of friends with dynamics both familiar and refreshing. (It’s also far less white overall, though no one acknowledges as much in the first few episodes at all.) The reigning queen bee is Julien (Jordan Alexander), an influencer whose cutthroat friends Luna (Zion Moreno) and Monet (Savannah Smith) act more like her publicists. Committed couple Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind) and Aki (Evan Mock) are doing their best to ignore the fact that the spark has long gone out of their relationship — except when they’re flirting with Max (Thomas Doherty), the group’s resident pansexual lothario. Julien’s boyfriend Obie (Eli Brown) is the richest of them all thanks to his perpetually absent real-estate developer parents, but also the most self-loathing about his level of wealth and privilege. (Think Dan Humphrey, if he had money.) With the exceptions of Luna and Monet, none of them are half as intimidating as their predecessors even if they still manage to scare off flustered teachers, including one played with a sharp eye towards her eventual unraveling by Tavi Gevinson.
Since every high school show needs a new kid in town, “Gossip Girl” soon introduces Buffalo transplant Zoya (Whitney Peak) — who, as it happens, is also Julien’s half-sister. The push and pull between them defines the first four episodes of the season, very purposefully mimicking the earlier love/hate relationship between Serena (Blake Lively) and Blair (Leighton Meester) that first captivated the Upper East Side. (Let’s just say that 2021 Gossip Girl has done their homework regarding what worked, and what didn’t, for their predecessor.) Rooting their conflict in family drama is a canny way to revitalize the rivalry, even if it also keeps either sister from fully committing to it.
The show does its best to balance all the storylines and keep everything as juicy as possible; even without especially caring about half of the characters, I accidentally marathoned all the episodes I had in a single night. Of everyone in the new cast, though, Alexander and Doherty make the longest lasting impressions. Alexander is tasked with some of the show’s trickiest balancing acts and cheesiest conclusions, and rises admirably to the challenge. She also imbues Julien with a palpable empathy for her supposed royal subjects that frustrates Luna and Monet beyond belief, if only because it keeps her from being the ruthless ruler they believe she should be. And as Max, Doherty is obscenely charming and charmingly obscene. No matter who he’s sharing a scene with — Audrey and/or Aki, Julien, his beloved dads — Doherty’s Max is hard to resist, as he well knows and loves.
If “Gossip Girl” was ever unique as a teen soap, it was in its unabashed commitment to the specificity of uber-wealthy Manhattan and its reference points. Safran’s doubles down on this aspect, weaving in cameos from new city fixtures like Jeremy O. Harris and having characters insult others’ internet presences by comparing them to those of Mayor DeBlasio and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at a teacher ending a list of the school’s notable alumni with “Caroline Kennedy, Colson Whitehead and Nate Archibald!”) Plus, with the aid of an obviously generous HBO budget, this “Gossip Girl” is simply more physically able to awe with its sheer opulence.
To say that the show still doesn’t especially feel like it was filmed in New York City isn’t inaccurate, but it also somewhat misses the point. These kids don’t live in New York City: they live in their New York City, a gilded playground without limits or legal drinking ages. No matter if Gossip Girl has a blog or an Instagram account, the more things change, the more things stay much the same.
“Gossip Girl” premieres July 8 on HBO Max.
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