Spoilers ahead for the twist that kicks off HBOMax’s Gossip Girl revival, which is really just its premise. XOXO.
The cat is out of its express-delivered-to-your-doorman Net-a-Porter bag. Gossip Girl is back on TV (er, streaming on HBOMax) and it has immediately cut to the chase and revealed who is behind the anonymous account this time around: the teachers! And they’re led by Tavi Gevinson, a.k.a. Zara-wearing English teacher Kate Keller, who isn’t pretending to be a high-school student but is playing a character who has made the questionable choice to stir up some Upper East Side high-school drama.
This is the boldest structural choice made by the new iteration of the show. In the original series, the author of the Gossip Girl blog that published secrets about the main characters was, as Kristen Bell purred in voiceover before every episode, “one secret I’ll never tell” — up until the finale punted and revealed that it was Dan Humphrey all along. You can understand why the writers felt obligated to say that someone was GG by the end of the show, but pinning it all on Dan, or any one character, would never make sense, given the way that the site seemed to be out for everyone at all times. The show was best in its earlier seasons, when Gossip Girl was less of an independent actor and more Upper East Side surveillance miasma. If you’re privileged enough, your natural comeuppance is being talked about, especially in the age of the internet.
The revival does away with the whole anonymity charade, but in the process makes the watchers more compelling than the watched. Gossip Girl has always existed within a silly, soapy universe, but there’s a new level of silliness to watching adult characters dutifully scrounge for gossip about the kids they’re supposed to be educating so that they can post witty takedowns of them on Instagram. Not that silliness is a bad thing; there’s something wry about the way Gevinson sells Miss Keller’s desire to be in on the dynamics of the cool clique, even if it all seems destined to blow up in her face — and maybe the show’s as well. Gossip Girl has gone from being about characters under the effects of surveillance to foregrounding the manufacture of it. The teens seem like an afterthought. It’s not about them. It’s about why we want to watch them.
The Gossip Girl revival’s explanation of the in-universe, well, revival of Gossip Girl is premised on some standard-issue class and generational warfare. The show starts with Kate Keller riding a J train across the Williamsburg bridge to work in Manhattan, scrolling through her students’ Insta stories. You might not realize she’s a teacher until she walks into one of her students, Jordan Alexander’s Julien Calloway, and spills coffee all over her outfit, which Julien’s friends then make fun of for being lame and cheap. On top of that, now that school is back in session after COVID, all of the rich kids’ parents are taking the opportunity to file complaints about their teachers. One of those teachers gets fired thanks to one of Julien’s minions, Monet, but not before she can tell all her coworkers that things were much better back in the day when she went to Constance Billard and everyone was afraid of what might be reported about them on Gossip Girl.
Having watched all of the original Gossip Girl, I can’t remember any instances of the main characters being anything other than their typical rich jerk selves to their teachers (unless they were buttering them up to try to get into Ivies). But still, Kate and the rest of the teachers’ break room — including Adam Chanler-Berat, Megan Ferguson, Rana Roy, and Jason Gotay — thrill to the idea of seizing control for themselves. They start skimming through the old Gossip Girl archives, offering commentary on the original run (So white! So problematic! Remember when Blair married a prince!), and then decide to try to start their own platform.
They try tweeting, then, failing to get traction there, post up on Instagram (Gossip Girl 2.0 is the second teen show I’ve seen to joke about how Twitter is full of lame Lin-Manuel Miranda tweets, after High School Musical: the Musical: The Series.) One teacher has access to school records that indicate that the new girl’s scholarship was bought by her estranged sister. They tag all the kids in the news (in its integration of social media into the plot, Gossip Girl cribs heavily from Norway’s multi-teen-media Skam), wait until the whole clique has gathered at fake Dumbo House, and post their scoop.
On a purely logistical level, the reveal that the teachers are running Gossip Girl now is ludicrous. It means that not only are these canonically overworked and underpaid characters trying to do their own jobs, they’ve also taken on the work of sifting through the high-school rumor mill in minute detail. They have to start doing all this legwork to procure the gossip they need for the account. In the first episode, Chandler-Berat’s teacher hides out in the rain outside a window to get a scandalous photo of the new girl and her sister’s boyfriend undressing together. Putting aside the illegality of that act, it’s also just hard to believe that a character who likes to talk about how much he loves his Yeti cup would suddenly commit to that level of spycraft. By the end of the episode, all the teachers are spending their night together watching one of their student’s fashion shows, which is a somewhat tragic way to use your free time. In the later episodes sent out by HBO Max in advance, the lengths to which the teachers go to maintain the account become even more absurd.
But if you’re watching any iteration of Gossip Girl, you’re likely not in it for the realism, so once you ease into the shocking idea that a peppy English teacher is also trying to craft Dorothy Parker–esque zingers about her students’ love lives, there’s a compelling emotional truth to the whole reveal. The teachers may say that they’re doing this to make their students behave, but what the twist really does is insert them that much further into their students’ lives. We’re overlooked and under-appreciated! Please include us in your narrative!
The fact that Tavi Gevinson, once the poster child for very-online teendom, is playing the teacher who spearheads the Gossip Girl account bakes some self-awareness into the series. “Here’s the thing about teens,” Gevinson told Vanity Fair in a cagey profile before the show’s premiere. “The turnover is quick.” Yet here she is in a show about teenagers, as a character forcing herself back into their world. Even if Kate Keller says she’s doing this to keep her students in line, thematically what it feels like she’s doing is trying to slip back into the freewheeling mode of life that her students occupy: to be young, glamorous, and salacious by association. The idea that the teachers want their students to behave is silly; the idea that the teachers, just on the sidelines of youth, want power over the youth is a nifty bit of social-media generational warfare.
That desire is meta-textually expressed by HBO Max’s revival of Gossip Girl itself. The show is coming back to TV nearly a decade after its first run, with a bigger per-episode budget but similar anxieties about trying to keep up with the times. It’s more diverse in terms of race and sexuality, but it’s eager to prove that it can offer original fans the same old pleasures. Just as Miss Keller and company are trying to emulate the diction of Dan Humphrey’s iteration of Gossip Girl for their own purposes, the show is self-consciously aping itself. The teachers have the same dilemma and motivations as the show’s writers, reviving Gossip Girl within Gossip Girl. When Kate starts writing posts again, Ferguson’s character tells her that “I’m going to need your Gossip Girl voice to be better than your real voice.” Suddenly, Kristen Bell pops back into the voiceover. She may talk about staging a revolution, but what we have here is really just emulation.
I can’t speak from the perspective of teenagers nowadays, but those original fans who watched Gossip Girl’s CW run in high school are now around the age of the new Gossip Girl’s teachers. If we’re looking for avatars on screen, it’s via Tavi and pals. I’m admittedly biased by seeing myself in these nosy 20-something characters who love mess and watching teen dramas, but I find the teachers on the show’s new run far more compelling than the teens they’re reporting on. The teens have fairly schematic love triangles and tessellated copies of some of the drama that propelled the original series — will the new girl and the queen learn to get along? Shrug! Will the perfect couple fall apart thanks to a hot interloper? Cool this is a bisexual love triangle now, but still, shrug! Please stop trying to get me invested in puppy love when there are adults engaged in a death match with their own sanity over the very concept of youth!
I’m not sure if the HBOMax Gossip Girl realizes just how seismic this shift is. Sure, Gossip Girl is a teen drama, but it’s accidentally made the teen dramatics the least interesting part of the show. As far as I’m concerned, the teachers are the main characters now.