In HBO Max’s reboot of the classic early 2000’s teen drama, the scandalous lives of the newest generation of Manhattan's Upper East Side elite are more accessible than ever.
This review contains spoilers for the first six episodes of “Gossip Girl” (2021) as well as some spoilers for the original series, “Gossip Girl” (2007).
Had the original “Gossip Girl,” as it was, aired in 2021, it would have been canceled—in nearly every sense of the word.
The original CW teen drama, starring then-fledgeling actors such as Blake Lively and Penn Badgley, thrived on capturing the schemes and petty drama of the primarily white, young, attractive, and uber-rich of Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was sensational, marketed cleverly, and was compelling in the same way looking at a train wreck is. The original “Gossip Girl” that ran from 2007-2012, was not only unafraid of letting its characters be messy, but welcomed it.
“Gossip Girl” (2021) is in the same vein as the original series, but not quite.
With more than 14 years between it and it’s proverbial ancestor, it makes sense that the series couldn’t retain the exact same feel as it. Plenty has happened in those years: the terms of two US presidents, a global pandemic, and the rise of what has become dubbed as “cancel culture.”
Any reboot of “Gossip Girl” could not recapture entirely what the original series was in a completely different social climate. How could it, in an era where its target demographic are far more politically and socially conscious than ever before? Combine that with the basic premise of the series relying on its characters being messy and, at times, downright problematic, and it’s easy to see why any showrunner/writer’s room could find themselves in a Catch-22 of sorts.
The result of this is the first half of “Gossip Girl” (2021) being both compelling and confounding.
The reboot/continuation first episode—aptly titled Just Another Girl on the MTA—serves simultaneously as the series’ callback and curtain call episode. While it’s the episode that spends the most time paying homage to the original series, it is also the one that establishes the main differences between it and its predecessor. As an example, it opens up on Constance Billard teacher Kate Keller (played by Tavi Gevinson, who ironically, is an ex-influencer) wearing a tan blazer over a striped turtleneck and a scarf mirroring the exact same outfit and method of travel taken by Serena Van Der Woodsen in the first episode of the original series.
The first episode alone allows itself to be cheeky with its references: besides the reboot still taking place at Constance Billard, it also incorporates iconic locations such as the Met steps; the scene that takes place there is also clever, as a character wearing a headband is very quickly told that it’s out of style (a nod to Blair Waldorf’s signature accessory from the original series).
But by that same token, the series diverges from the original very quickly: it’s revealed in this very first episode that the people responsible for the titular Gossip Girl’s facelift from dated blog to anonymous Instagram account are… a group of Constance Billard teachers, with Kate as the de facto ring leader. Their motives for reviving it from the dead are to keep the rich students of Constance Billard in line, which while somewhat reasonable, is downright ridiculous and demands a heavy suspension of disbelief on the audience’s behalf.
Their targets are a group of students who are no less moneyed, beautiful, and dramatic as the original series’ cast of characters but far more diverse: the ensemble consists of Queen Bee Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), her boyfriend Obie Bergmann IV (Eli Brown), her two semi-loyal subjects Luna La (Zion Moreno), Monet De Haan (Savannah Smith), her best friend Audrey Hope (Emily Alyn Lind), Audrey’s boyfriend Aki Menzies (Evan Mock), and sexually fluid casanova Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty). Add in Julien’s secret-half-sister-slash-frenemy from Buffalo and the show’s debatably main protagonist, Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), and you have all of the pieces set on the “Gossip Girl” (2021) chess board.
Whether or not the series actually makes effective use of those pieces is… up for debate. The show poses Julien and Zoya as the two rival queens on the board and their loving sisters/bitter rival dynamic is supposed to be the linchpin the narrative is meant to stand on. At first, the hot-cold dynamic is compelling in a manner not unlike the Serena/Blair relationship of GG past and with a few added layers to it: they’re long-lost sisters, share a deceased mother, and both hold feelings for Obie, Julien’s boyfriend.
The last of the three is the only true main source of conflict between them as neither one of the girls is inherently mean-spirited and/or partial to schemes; both sisters are kind, if not benevolent, and most of the time, do not actively try to ruin each other’s lives. In fact, this is to the extent that their characters become less like ruling monarchs wielding great power to pawns for characters like Monet and Luna or Kate and the rest of the teachers who run Gossip Girl to play against one another. It doesn’t help that the two of them are usually fighting over Obie who is noted to be the 1% of the 1%, a resolute activist, yet it is as interesting character-wise as complimentary white bread from Cheesecake Factory.
But that’s not to say that the show is all bad. Zoya and Julien, especially on their own, are compelling characters with the former being a social activist entering the world of NYC’s elite, and the latter being an influencer with a mass following watching her every move who also is dealing with a secretive and absent-ish father. Honestly, the two of them are bogged down by their storyline with Obie. Monet and Luna are also interesting, perhaps due to the fact that they are the most prolific schemers of the cast but as of the first six episodes, have not been given sufficient screen time nor storylines of their own.
The last three characters—Audrey, Aki, and Max—are perhaps the show’s first half’s saving graces. Not only do two out of three of them have compelling solo plotlines (Audrey’s with her mom’s and Max’s with his parents as well as a student/teacher relationship plotline that is handled relatively well), but the three of them are also at their most interesting when they are put together. Seeing an actual love triangle in which all three sides of the triangle are romantically invested in each other was refreshing in a relatively mainstream show, and the way it plays out is actually compelling to watch.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to see what the main issue is with the first half of “Gossip Girl” (2021): it has all of the pieces for a juicy, complicated narrative with an ensemble cast but just doesn’t make use of it. For example, Obie and his relationship with Zoya. I would have loved to see it used as a device to comment on privilege and performative social justice. While yes, that seems out of place in a show like “Gossip Girl” (2021), the show’s script itself has already been injected with social and political awareness; why not run with that? With that in mind, why couldn’t they have focused more on the pressure Julien as well as possibly the other characters feel in an era marked by intense social scrutiny through social media?
My verdict: All that privilege and potential, mostly squandered. But there’s hope for you yet. XOXO, Gossip Girl.
Lance Serafica is an undergraduate at Rowan University who is currently pursuing a BA in English, a minor in Creative Writing, and a minor in Strategic Communications. Lance is a writer for ink. He enjoys writing everything from personal essays to reviews of popular media, but has a particular soft spot for analyzing diverse YA literature. When not writing, Lance can be found with his nose buried in a book or obsessively listening to Taylor Swift’s extensive discography. You can find more of his opinions on books on his Goodreads page.