Four episodes into HBO Max’s new Gossip Girl reboot, the anonymous dirt-dishing gossip writer types a new Instagram caption. “You thought I was a person,” she writes, “but I never said I was. I’m a revolution.” It is a telling line, not just about how Gossip Girl sees herself in 2021, but about what Gossip Girl wants to be. Or at least, what it thinks it needs to be. So much of the new Gossip Girl is a familiar reworking of the first show’s tropes and interests. There’s the hot popular girl whose popularity is threatened, the disaffected boyfriend, the wealthy kids, the outsider family, the arch sexiness smirking at your shock that the teens (the teens!) are so worldly, so adult, so preternaturally hardened and knowing. And yet the currency of this incarnation’s references and cultural models comes with an equally current anxiety. Surely these hyper-privileged teens must be aware of their privilege? Surely Gossip Girl and Gossip Girl can’t only be Edith Wharton written for 2021, it must also be a Jeremy O. Harris play, a new season of the Nice White Parents podcast, a knife that punctures its subjects even while it whittles them into being. It has to be Gossip Girl and it also has to be a revolution.
That anxiety is expressed in multiform ways. The teens, while flaunting their painfully expensive clothing and inviting pop stars to play at their birthday parties, are also perpetually aware of how things appear. Looking perfect is one thing, but they also have to look like they are perfect, that they’re aware of climate change and unionization drives and the authentic appeal of a clean, no-makeup look.
The new Gossip Girl is much the same. It has so much more money than the original CW iteration. It is flashier, fancier; its sets are sumptuous and its costumes immaculate; the cinematography screams “I had the money for every single camera set-up I asked for.” But it also has to appear as though it understands the difference between flashily flaunting wealth in 2007 and doing it in 2021. Gossip Girl knows it has to make its superrich characters reflect on their privilege, but it also knows it has to demonstrate that own reflection in the way the show is written and cast; its stars are less white and its love triangles and sexy taboos are less straight. The new It Girl, once played by Blake Lively, is now Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), whose Black mother left long ago and whose white music-producer-mogul father (Luke Kirby) indulges Julien in everything. Her friend cohort is perfectly diverse while also being perfectly identical to one another, in lockstep about the best clubs, the best restaurants, the best social platforms, the best of everything. Its new outsider character, Zoya (Whitney Peak), is Black, and unlike the dubiously disadvantaged Humphries of the original series, she is a scholarship student living with her father in her grandmother’s apartment. See? It’s a slick, winking, high-gloss depiction of a specific NYC upper crust, but it is also a revolution.
Nowhere is the show’s revolutionary instinct more present than in the biggest change from the original: The identity of its title character, which is established early in the first episode of the new series. (Warning: If you consider the very premise of this show to be a spoiler, stop reading now.) While Gossip Girl is still an anonymous tipster in the world of the show, a private-school Deuxmoi, viewers learn quickly that the newly resurrected Gossip Girl is an invention of the private-school teachers, most specifically Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson). The trouble, the teachers have decided, is that these too-adult teens are, in fact, Too Adult. They have no regard for school etiquette and they flagrantly ignore the well-bred education the teachers are desperately trying to instill in them. The only possible recourse, Keller and her colleagues decide, is for the teachers to resurrect a decade-old gossip blog that spills personal secrets about all the most popular kids in school (??), which will then strike fear in the hearts of all the teens and inspire them to become better students (???).
It makes as much sense as turning on a hose to stop the rain, but Gossip Girl doesn’t care much about logic because it’s in the business of revolution. And however nonsensical the plan may be, it does have an undeniable sheen of, if not revolution, then at least revenge. The wealthy students are awful and the underpaid teachers are going to take them down a peg! Who better to discover and reveal the innermost hidden secrets of high-school students than the teachers they barely acknowledge as human beings?
It’s not that none of this makes for an enjoyable television show. At its heights, the new Gossip Girl is every bit as absurd and high drama as the original, and it has an even more wicked and accurate ear for references, parodies, and stinging asides. The teachers first launch the Gossip Girl account on Twitter, but when it gets no response they realize it needs to live on Instagram. “Twitter,” one of the teachers points out, “is a glorified chatroom for meme-sharing, conspiracy theorists, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.” One of the parent characters is a direct take-off of theater producer Jordan Roth. Julien’s It Girl status is undergirded by her Olivia Jade-esque makeup influencer brand. Even the casting of Gevinson, herself a former young fashion It Girl and generation-shaping writer, is a pitch-perfect Gossip Girl ouroborus of high-profile reality inspiring soapy fantasy, which filters back down into reality and spurs the cycle to continue. The show’s most appealing, fascinating, outright fun elements are the parts where it so clearly owns itself, enjoys itself, preens with one hand at the same time as it flips a casual bird with the other.
And yet it also wants to be a revolution, and thinks it has to be one, even though it hasn’t the foggiest idea of what that revolution should be, or even who it should be against. Does it love these characters or loathe them? Should we the viewers do one or the other? Do we root for a teacher to devastate these teenagers? Does she even want to devastate them? What does a revolution look like when its battleground is a private-school courtyard and its weapons are teen relationship drama and private shame?
It is fundamentally hollow at the core, frivolous and frothy, studded with sequins and infidelities and students who lust for their teachers (but gay!). It seems uneasy with that emptiness, but it lacks the desire or capability to backfill everything with earnestness or do-goodery, and some later scenes in the series where it attempts to suddenly find sincerity are among the worst, most cringeworthy parts of the four episodes provided to critics. “We’re supposed to send [the students] out of here as Barack Obamas, not Brett Kavanaughs,” Kate says in the premiere. The line is meant as an expression of fear for their moral souls, and there’s an immediate sense that this is what the new Gossip Girl thinks it must be. Or maybe what it thinks it needs to look like it’s trying to be. In practice, it’s just more name-dropping. It’d be a relief if the show could just admit it.