emergency discussion

WTF Happened to Gossip Girl?

Photo: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

Occasionally it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. This time, Kathryn VanArendonk and Jackson McHenry sit down together to consider one of the most baffling, bizarre, and strangely uninteresting television shows of the past several weeks.

Kathryn VanArendonk: We are gathered here today to discuss WTF happened to Gossip Girl.

Jackson McHenry: Indeed, gathered in a swanky New York restaurant in our finest designer clothes with no one in the background because of COVID, trying to make sense of the HBO Max reboot series’s unfortunately quite dull half-season finale, and really, the dull streak of episodes that preceded it.

KV: There was a sense of cautious optimism about this Gossip Girl reboot, which I absolutely shared based on the first couple of episodes. Although it’s wildly messy, the decision to unveil Gossip Girl’s identity right up front was interesting, and the choice to make Gossip Girl none other than a vengeful teacher played by Tavi Gevinson was … well, it’s the kind of thing that makes Kombucha Girls of us all. Sure it seemed like a terrible idea, but maybe it was actually brilliant? At least it wasn’t instantly boring! But over the remaining episodes of the first season’s initial six-episode release, everything started to spiral downward, or at least that’s been my impression. Dear Gossip Girl — am I alone?

JM: I’m a valiant, probably quixotic defender of the whole idea of Tavi as Gossip Girl slash stand-in for a millennial watching the show slash digital media Instagram strategist slash avatar of the show’s writers, because it’s so bonkers. But the show itself has really veered away from what’s most compelling about that idea (her character’s implied need to be accepted by, or at least influential over, teens who don’t care about her) into various light shenanigans, and occasionally not-so-light ones — whose idea was it to have Gossip Girl lead to a kid bringing a gun to school? And then not have the show follow up on that at all?

You mentioned it in your review, but what I’ve found frustrating about the later episodes of this reboot/revival/necromancy is that it can’t quite figure out whether it wants to upend the conventions of the original with some kind of Gen-Z revolution, or just carry on with the parties and glamour. That makes both of those things ultimately feel half-hearted, and leaves the teen characters feeling so unmoored. I care about pretty much none of them, even Actually Bi This Time Chuck Bass, who is caught in a deeply confused plot with his predatory teacher that the show alternately remembers and then forgets is real creepy.

KV: It has been fascinating to watch this series occasionally remember that its original conceit is actually pretty dark and thorny, and to highlight that in aggressively alarming ways. What if a teacher’s gossipy observations about students became public? What if a teacher with much less financial privilege decided to actually teach some rich kids a lesson? What if that lesson caused real violence?! But it’s been fascinating largely because every time those ideas do actually show up in these six episodes, it’s so jarring that you’re immediately pulled out of the show. There is so little effort to integrate any of the cultural criticism into the show itself — the teacher-versus-students thing, all the broader generational tension. It’s not connected to anything the characters care about or act upon.

By the midseason finale, all the kids end up at a protest (for … affordable housing? I guess? Sort of, maybe?) and they’ve got signs and they’re yelling, and eventually things get more violent and the whole scene turns into a Broadway musical version of a protest with bright-colored lights and smoke machines. But Gossip Girl can only imagine using the protest as a backdrop for personal conflicts. It can’t even begin to fathom how the protest could be present in the show as, you know, actually a protest about an important issue. This is one huge, ever-present problem with this Gossip Girl, but I feel like even that is only just part of the issue, because the other looming disaster is that it’s just really boring?

JM: So boring! It should be criminal to introduce a character based off of Wendi Deng, one of the world’s most inherently dramatic people, and then make her just be Evan Mock’s slightly concerned mom.

This show is bait for a lot of “can you write a woke teen drama” think pieces, but looking at it that way skates over its unrelated but fundamental storytelling flaws. Often, it’s easy to forget what any of the teens want in any given episode — aside from maybe the fact that Julien wants a Sephora deal or Not Chuck wants to get off. They’re mostly reactive characters, to their parents’ drama or to whatever Tavi gins up. I would kill for a basic OG GG seasons one or two plot like “they all want to impress an Ivy League recruitment officer!” or “they need to get their parents’ money back from a scammer!” Part of the essential witch’s brew of the original run was that you always knew whatever Blair or Serena wanted, which was usually some form of power or access or status. That could be easily transmuted into a plot point about a deb ball or getting into Yale. Here, they seem to work backward from “cool event” to “why everyone wants to go there.” I was shocked when Dad Luke Kirby (sans hat, also a shock) mentioned Julien’s PSAT scores in this most recent episode, because I had forgotten that they even were still going to school.

KV: There are no stakes! Sure, blonde girl wants her mom, Laura Benanti, to live. And Tavi apparently wants to hook up with Zoya’s dad. But beyond that, even when there is some event for the characters to react to, none of the bad consequences ever stick around. Photo shoot gone awry — fixed! Boyfriend’s mom hates you — whatever! For all the show’s supposed political consciousness, it has also lost track of any grounding in the real world. It’s not that I mind that as a character note; I’m sure that’s realistic for what some of these kids’ real lives would be like. As a storytelling problem, though, it means we now lack even the small, silly pressure of the OG series’s characters who had some (relative) financial hardship. It was an obstacle! It really mattered when someone didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket to a concert, or something. Zoya and her dad were supposed to fulfill that, but it disappeared almost instantly.

Plus, characters without infinite buckets of money were useful benchmarks in the original series because they helped register the strangeness of the ultra-rich. It felt novel to see all these mega-monied teens slouching around New York. They were compelling because they got into all kinds of drama, but also because the show was able to retain some impression of them as outside the norm. In the reboot, the only characters who register the oddity of wildly wealthy teenagers are their teachers. And we can’t trust the teachers or sympathize with their perspectives, because all they do is hang around typing mean Instagram posts about their minor-aged students!

JM: I think the absence of that grounding is all the more glaring in a show that clearly has a much larger budget per episode than the original, and is almost choked with visual signifiers of New York wealth: designer clothes from brands I’m only barely aware of, trips to the Public Theater for a Jeremy O. Harris play and inevitable Jeremy O. Harris cameo, cinematography from the A24 school of “maybe we make this look smokey.” The dialogue is stuffed with references to everything from pigs on Scruff to misconceived Ivo Van Hove Broadway revivals. It’s designed, seemingly, to make annoying gay millennials screen-cap it on Twitter, which, speaking as exactly that demographic, is so pandering it feels claustrophobic. To talk like a Gossip Girl 2.0 teen: Gossip Girl 2.0 is in the group chat constantly sending memes and not getting why people have resorted to hitting the “haha” react and ignoring them.

KV: Look, I am a human. I am not above seeing a glib, insider-y Twitter joke and then typing “lmao” in my mind’s eye. But it’s yet another way in which there was clearly a lot of thought put into the superficial stuff — the costumes, the lights, the references, the brand partnerships, the obligatory representation of various races and sexual orientations among the cast — without any accompanying thought about what this show wants to be or who it’s actually for. And yes, if you just look at any single frame of this show, it’s convincing! (That’s a lie — Julien is so prematurely adult that when she walks along next to her father Luke Kirby, it 100 percent looks like they’re on a date.) But if you have three teenagers whose only job is to eventually have a threesome, and they finally get to the scene where they’re having a threesome, and the primary reaction is, “how did it possibly take them this long, and why does this threesome look so boring,” the problem with the show is not how it looks, it’s how the show is built.

I suppose at this point the question is, can it be saved? Do we want it to be saved?

JM: I would really like it to be saved, because out of both professional obligation and welp this was programmed into my genes as a teen obligation, I’m going to have to keep watching. Well, at least until they do a Thanksgiving episode — if they mess up the Thanksgiving episode, a hallowed Gossip Girl tradition, then I might be out.

As for how to fix it? First off, the teens need to drive the drama again; let the teachers be more of a Greek chorus. But more importantly, they need to get into some real conflict. Julien and Zoya were close to some blow-up, but the show pulled away. Give us some reason for them to actually betray each other — and sure, maybe they’ll become friends again slowly like Blair and Serena, but linger in the wound for a bit. Linger in any wound! You’ve got all this glamour, trust the audience to follow you to something nasty for a change. I still can’t believe Julien gave that whole speech about not being a bully in episode four and didn’t walk offstage and turn to someone to say, like, “well, that gambit worked.” These kids can talk about doing the right thing and even believe themselves, but as we know from both The White Lotus and real life, people say a lot of shit and then act in their own self interest. Show us that!

KV: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. It’s a weirdly cowardly show! It’s as though it’s operating out of a fear that if any character is unhappy for more than two scenes, the entire audience will revolt. (See, for instance, Obie feeling annoyed by Zoya for the briefest period of time and then immediately making out with Julien.) I would also, out of pure self-interest but also critical confidence, love it if they could shave those episode times down by about 15 minutes. Make everyone sad for a while, but make it snappy!

JM: Okay, one final request: More Donna Murphy. I just like when she has to be the stern headmaster, and she pronounces the phrase “Gossip Girl” well. That’s all.

KV: Excellent. Emergency meeting adjourned.

WTF Happened to Gossip Girl?