HBO Max’s Gossip Girl isn’t your mother’s Gossip Girl, as in the original CW series that hit millennials’ TV boxes 14 years ago and which we now have to blame for Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’s plantation wedding. There are no T-Mobile Sidekicks. Headbands are obsolete. Social media is a well-established phenomenon, and Instagram followers are currency. Notably, there are several queer and non-white people in the main cast, all of whom could actually pass for high-school students. And it must be said that there are no sexual-assault attempts by one of the show’s male protagonists in the series premiere, for which we are grateful!
Written by original series executive producer and writer Joshua Safran and directed by Karena Evans, best known for Drake’s “Nice for What” video, “Just Another Girl on the MTA” is a thoroughly bumpy but intriguing start to a remake that seems to anticipate its audience’s cynicism about its existence. It’s not that reactions to the news of a Gossip Girl reboot have been entirely negative, at least on my Twitter timeline. But there’s been pushback online about the way adult screenwriters in recent years portray the high-school experience, either as an extremely safeguarded liberal utopia for millennials to emotionally revisit, or as sexually explicit panic bait, when, in real life, Gen Z is allegedly not as preoccupied with that stuff as we think they are.
Likewise, Gossip Girl 2.0 walks a fine line (not always gracefully) between these expectations, adding a heightened sense of self-awareness — the original Gossip Girl was self-aware in some respects — and internet-era wokeness to the show’s signature asshole behavior, classism, and sexual content. At least in this premiere episode, characters are bitchy but not offensively cruel. There’s sex, but it’s not weaponized against anyone. Some rich kids mindlessly enjoy their privilege, while others hate themselves for it. That being said, the show’s central drama doesn’t go down as smoothly as the original’s apparent soap-opera tropes; certain plot points feel overwritten and defy basic logic. But this gang of rich kids isn’t walking around using awkward social-justice Tumblrspeak and, for that reason alone, this first hour ends up being very watchable and surprisingly low on the cringe factor.
Let’s get into some of that drama, shall we? Once a power struggle between Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen for the title of hottest, most buzzed-about teenage girl in the Upper East Side and a spot at Yale, the show’s main conflict will now seemingly revolve around two formerly estranged half-sisters: Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), a fashion influencer and wealthy daughter of a Grammy-winning producer, and Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), a recent Buffalo transplant and not-so-wealthy daughter of a guy who we don’t yet know much about except that he loathes rich people. They meet for the first time at Constance Billard after secretly communicating on social media and over the phone for several years. Their dads hate each other, as they were embroiled in a love triangle with their mother before she passed away, but the sisters are more than eager to bond, which is why they plot behind their parents’ backs to attend the same school.
Naturally, by the end of this episode they despise each other. But the root of their contention is a lot more complicated than wanting to achieve peak popularity or capture a boy’s attention. Some of it involves class tension, which leads us to another major component of this show’s setup that left me scratching my head and hollering at my MacBook screen.
So, the thing about this reboot is that there’s no mystery to Gossip Girl. Upon arriving at Costance Billard — sister school to the all-boys St. Jude’s — for the first time since quarantine, teacher Kate Keller, played by Tavi Gevinson, is jarred by how rude and dismissive of authority her students are in person. It’s comical to watch Keller and her fellow young teachers, who all come off very loony, discuss this school like it’s the one in Lean on Me, only instead of fighting in hallways, everyone’s an influencer who expects automatic A’s. This anxiety is exacerbated when one of their co-workers is fired for not changing a grade for a student after their parents complained to administrators. The other teachers’ response to this is not to behave like adults and apply the leadership skills they should have as trained educators, or maybe look for a better-paying job at a public school, but to reboot Gossip Girl — which is briefly explained to them by an alumnus — with the hope that they can “take the power back” from students by instigating drama amongst them, which will somehow make them respect school faculty??
This calculation just doesn’t make sense. A quick cost-benefit analysis would conclude that the possibility of getting fired for spying on minors and spreading gossip about their sex lives from an easily traceable device is simply not worth any level of courtesy from from one’s students. I would love to side with the characters with the lowest checking-account balance here, but, so far, these teachers are unforgivably stupid to the point where their scenes disrupt the tone of the show.
But let’s get back to our teeny-boppers. Julien’s clique, before Zoya infiltrates it, is an assortment of softbois — Julien’s socially minded boyfriend, Obie (Eli Brown); Chuck Bass’s less creepy, pansexual doppelgänger, Max (Thomas Dohery); and blindly pretty and maybe bi-curious Aki (Evan Mock) — and traditional high-school mean girls: Julien’s two assistants in “influencing,” Monet (Savannah Smith) and Luna (Zion Moreno); and the pouty, raspy-voiced Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind), who is also Aki’s girlfriend. This particular crew seems to be more close-knit than their predecessors, which makes it all the more puzzling that Julien has trouble integrating Zoya into the group on the principle that she’s her blood sister.
The only person other than Julien who’s immediately welcoming of Zoya is Obie, whose rich, guilty conscience is desperate to mingle with anyone with less money than him. (Which technically is just about everyone, as it’s pointed out to us that Obie is the richest of these richies.) Zoya, who has a Stokely Carmichael poster on her bedroom door, also seems socially conscious, so we can already tell where this might go.
The episode really kicks off when Julien invites Zoya to hang out at a members’ only club. She goes over the draconian rules of being One of Them while, on the other side of the club, Audrey is getting so turned on by Max that she needs emergency cunnilingus from Aki. Their night of hedonism is interrupted by the first notification from Gossip Girl, an Instagram post alleging that Julien committed fraud by getting Zoya her scholarship to Costance Billard, which her producer papa funds, a fact discovered by one of our sociopathic teachers and confirmed by Julien. Zoya is obviously upset because this news could send her packing. But she also wants to believe that her admission was rightfully earned, even though their school seems completely corrupt and run by money.
Feeling betrayed, she heads home in the rain with Obie, who also feels betrayed that Julien didn’t fill him in on her scheming. For some reason, they decide to get soaking wet instead of getting a car. Obie suggests Zoya go back to his place and wait for the rain to stop because there’s no way this real-estate-developer heir can call her an Uber. He also mysteriously can’t get his mom’s carpet wet, so he makes the both of them strip at the door in front of a giant window before putting their clothes in the dryer?? This is definitely the behavior of a Craigslist murderer, but Zoya goes along with it.
As the two of them bond over their respective relationships with Julien, one of our goofy teachers, played by Adam Chanler-Berat, conveniently — and horrifyingly — walks by Obie’s window and gets a photo of these children stripping. It takes two seconds of deliberation with Keller before they decide to post it to Gossip Girl and have the entire school anticipating an epic sister showdown. Unfortunately, in this updated show, girls don’t turn on each other that easily. Julien believes Zoya when she says there was no foul play and devises a plan to make herself Queen Bee again and not Zoya, who everyone seems to appreciate for being a home-wrecker. Zoya weirdly goes along with this plan that will have her look like a loser before all her peers.
Julien arranges for Zoya to end up on Gossip Girl by leaving her off the invite list for an afterparty for a Christoper John Rogers show she’s walking in. According to Monet and Luna, this plan isn’t humiliating enough for Zoya. So they steal her phone upon entering the fashion show, get Max to take a photo of his dick, Airdrop it to all the attendees, and get security to have her kicked out. The outcome is nevertheless the same, except that it ends up in a TMZ article that mentions Julien’s alleged fraud, which Zoya’s dad discovers and gets reasonably concerned about.
The next day, Julien tries to apologize to Zoya and claims she didn’t know her cronies had planned an attack on her. Zoya’s nevertheless upset that Julien didn’t intervene when she was literally on a stage doing a job. Anyway, Julien tells her that she either has to fall in line with her social games or be on her own. So Zoya opts for the latter, showing up at school with naturally curly hair and dressed like a hipster. She also agrees to go to a Rights in the City Alliance with Obie, who — oh, yeah — breaks up with Julien because he’s just realized that she might be a shallow bitch.
The episode ends with Aki and Audrey trying to have sex and Aki giving her permission to fantasize about Max. It’s clear that Aki wants Max, too, or has maybe already had him. Some throuple trouble is clearly on the horizon for these horndogs. Meanwhile, Julien’s bruised ego somehow makes her and her sidekicks not want to pick on Ms. Keller for the time being. Again, make it make sense! Are these three girls the teachers’ only students? Why do they care so much about what this one clique thinks of them? How do these students’ relationships with each other affect how they feel about adults who they see for an hour each a day??
So far, almost everyone on this show seems to suffer from chronic overthinking and a lack of basic problem-solving. The writers’ room, too. But I’m not ashamed to put my critic’s hat to the side and say that I got a genuine kick out of the first 60 minutes of what might be the kookiest series I’ve watched in a long time — the last probably being the original Gossip Girl.
More From This Series
- Gossip Girl Finale Recap: Good-bye, Gossip Girl
- Gossip Girl Dethroned
- Gossip Girl Recap: Hudson Valley Girls