Television

‘Gossip Girl’ is Proof We’re Trapped in Reboot Hell

Apart from a potentially star-making turn by Jordan Alexander, your time on HBO Max is better spent bingeing the original rich teen soap.

Hollywood’s aversion to new stories and obsession with intellectual property has birthed enough reboots to last several lifetimes. They’ve come in every format you can imagine: Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s reunion specials, years-later check-ins á la Will & Grace and Murphy Brown, and series that share their originals’ names and little else, which CBS has deployed with MacGyver and Magnum P.I. Quality and success can wildly vary but each past, present, and future reboot is tethered to the irony that nostalgia-fueled programming will rarely meet our irrational desires, and pale in comparison to the originals.

The cast of Gossip Girl (courtesy: WarnerMedia)

Gossip Girl, WarnerMedia’s latest attempt to goose up HBO Max’s subscriber base, butts right up against this reality. The original CW series was a staple of late-2000’s television that dominated the zeitgeist with its shameless glorification of wealth and melodrama. The show was not high art, and never pretended to be. At its absolute best, it was delightfully sordid, barely reasonable, and utterly watchable. The Parents Television Council may have hated Gossip Girl (which the show used to its advantage), but audiences loved it. Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley, and even Sebastian Stan launched their careers off its back. The show eventually jumped off its very shaky rails, but its first seasons were buzzy, soapy goodness, allowing it to survive well past its finale.

Given its enduring popularity and the fact that the finale aired only nine years ago, rebooting Gossip Girl for the TikTok age is either nonsensical, deeply cynical, or both. It’s damned to be hated or ignored by nature of its relation, regardless of what reboot format it takes. The bottom barrel expectations do offer a potentially tantalizing opportunity for this series to genuinely surprise, to perhaps subvert its source material without sacrificing the hot mess that made it a phenomenon.

Savannah Lee Smith and Jordan Alexander in Gossip Girl (courtesy: WarnerMedia)

Unfortunately, Gossip Girl takes several wrong paths towards that goal, tripping over its attempts at self-awareness, shallow stabs at diversity, and frustrating references to the original that overshadow what makes it somewhat worth watching. Gossip Girl’s most egregious error is with its eponymous shit-stirrer, voiced by the returning Kristen Bell. This time around, the digital terror of the Upper East Side youth is a group of underpaid teachers who the students of Constance Billard dehumanize daily.

The marquee twist is clumsily justified by the staff as a last-ditch effort to raise a group of Barack Obamas rather than Brett Kavanaughs. The show acknowledges that the students are villains, but the teachers aren’t heroes wielding iPhones as shining swords. Instead, they are pathetic, disgusting, criminal, and amoral, and not in fun ways. Watching them stumble through the hallways and project the exact opposite of authority, you can understand why the students treat them so terribly.

Gossip Girl’s new identity is one of the inventions to prove the show’s modernity and relevance as if the original was lacking in either. The reboot feels reverse-engineered to fit into 2021, from its frequent if not constant references to Instagram Stories (it wouldn’t surprise me if WarnerMedia cut Mark Zuckerberg a check) to its casual mentions of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Gossip Girl’s most visible grab for Gen Z credibility is its cast, which is more racially diverse and queerer than the original. It’s a welcome display on the surface. Dig deeper, and the identities don’t expand beyond slightly-updated tropes: the pansexual bad boy; the mean-spirited black girl; the bi-curious pink-haired introvert dating the repressed blonde girl who’s definitely into the pansexual bad boy, and they’ll end up in a throuple in four episodes or less. Most of the cast lacks specific character traits for us to latch onto and root for or against. The show tells us how close-knit their friend group is, but we don’t see why or how. Most of the Upper East Siders feel as disposable as they are supposed to represent progress.

Jordan Alexander in Gossip Girl (courtesy: WarnerMedia)

The one fully-realized character, and Gossip Girl’s best asset, is the lead Julien Calloway, played by Jordan Alexander. Julien is the school’s Queen B, and Alexander certainly has the sort of edgy, hip glamour to succeed in her reign. However, she is much more enjoyable when the show pulls back the Instagramm-ready facade, like when she meets her half-sister Zoya (Whitney Peak) for the first time. That moment of pure joy lends the more familiar adversarial beats weight, all of them communicated well by Alexander’s fierce yet fragile gaze. If there is a reason to watch Gossip Girl, Jordan Alexander is it. The other is the show’s impressively expensive-looking production design, which conveys a sense of elegant, lavish grandeur that the rest of the show never really earns.

Gossip Girl could’ve flipped the script on us and been compelling in its own right. It should’ve leaned into the surprisingly rich drama of two wildly different long-lost sisters navigating the choppy waters of upper-crust society and utterly owning it while trying to figure each other out. Instead, Julien’s love interest Obie sulks over his money and gets caught half-naked with Zoya by Gossip Girl because they walked in the rain instead of calling a Lyft, after Gossip Girl revealed Julien essentially bought Zoya’s admission into Constance. That kind of convoluted plot was a hallmark of its predecessor but had a greater sense of fun and reckless abandon. If that wasn’t irritating enough, the show has the nerve to name-check Blair, Serena, Dan, Nate, and Chuck, confirming that this isn’t some bizarro alternate universe and that those infinitely better characters exist, just not on our screens.

It’s a brutal reminder that, instead of watching cardboard cutout characters, spineless yet cruel teachers, rich white guilt, and toothless private school admissions scandals of the reboot, we’d instead be watching the original Gossip Girl.

Luckily for us, Gossip Girl is readily available. On HBO Max. (Just don’t forget to search for 2007 with it.)

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