Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A new Gossip Girl introduces new rules, new rivalries, and new potential

However, the central feud introduced in "Just Another Girl On The MTA" leaves much to be desired

Jordan Alexander, Whitney Peak
Jordan Alexander, Whitney Peak
Graphic: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

HBO Max’s Gossip Girl touts itself as for a new, younger audience, as the glamorous teen soap for this Zoomer generation like the original was for millennials. While the original faced off against series inspired by its gloss, this version is going head-to-head with prestige cable teen dramas like Euphoria and Generation, as well as the streaming standard of shows like 13 Reasons Why and Elite.

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And yet, as “Just Another Girl On The MTA” proves, HBO Max’s Gossip Girl is pretty much still Gossip Girl. It even kicks things off with an event of the week in the form of a fired up fashion show, just like its ancestors. Its “Blair and Serena” are half-sisters, Queen B influencer Julien (Jordan Alexander) and fresh meat scholarship kid Zoya (Whitney Peak). Doing a variation of the Parent Trap where they don’t want their fathers near each other, Gossip Girl follows along as Julien’s very teenage plan to get Zoya to join her at Manhattan’s Constance Billard-St. Jude’s School succeeds and her other very teenage plan to get Zoya to join her friend group… does not. The former makes a sort of sense, including the lying to their fathers about their relationship, but Julien’s decision to lie to her friends instead of just asking them to be cool… does not. Which brings up to the main issue with this Gossip Girl: The story beats that come from the show’s new rivalry dynamic are the flimsiest part.

Rounding out Julien’s popular friend group are her social justice warrior boyfriend Obie (Eli Brown), partners in crime Monet (Savannah Lee Smith) and Luna (Zión Moreno), pansexual party boy Max (Thomas Doherty), and Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind) and Aki (Evan Mock), the other couple. To be honest, there’s not too much to differentiate any of the non-Julien/Zoya female teenage characters in this pilot, because they all just fill the mean girl role. Monet is the most dynamic, while Luna has little more to offer in this episode than being “the tall one,” and Audrey gets away from being “the blonde one” because she has a story outside of Julien’s orbit. After all, Audrey and Aki’s introduction is them having sex in her bed before school—with a quick comment about how this show exists post-COVID—and her struggling to have an orgasm. Because this is a television show, that’s abormal, which presumably leads things down the route of a throuple—as opposed to the pre-2021 love triangle we’d typically get—between Audrey, Aki, and Max. It’s the story that reveals just how much this show longs for the kind of “Every parent’s nightmare.”-style publicity the original series got, which is going to be hard in the time of Euphoria.

Max has the most obvious original series proxy in Chuck Bass, right down to the Scottish Doherty’s whisper delivery—though it’s not as extreme as Ed Westwick’s ever was. He’s also clearly the most fun of the bunch for that very reason. But speaking of the male character side of things, Aki also fares poorly as a tangible character in this episode. He’s perhaps the biggest blank slate of the crew, simply because Luna at least has “mean girl” to work with. This is a place where this Gossip Girl’s existence has its issues: Being part of the most salacious story of the show doesn’t actually fill in the blanks in terms of compelling writing for these characters. While “Just Another Girl On The MTA” succeeds as a pilot for a number of reasons, there are plenty of things that fall through the cracks, especially on the character front. And considering how large this cast is, that could be a major issue moving forward.

From the style to the technology to the way that these characters acknowledge their privilege, HBO Max’s Gossip Girl is very clear that it is a 2021 series. For that reason, a lot of the reality of this Gossip Girl seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle before it even premiered. Part of that stems from what revival creator and showrunner Joshua Safran (a writer and executive producer on the original) said about the series in the lead-up. Specifically the fact that he told Variety, “These kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t. In light of [Black Lives Matter], in light of a lot of things, even going back to Occupy Wall Street, things have shifted.” That particular quote didn’t sit well with some, fearing that this show would miss the point of Gossip Girl completely and that it was going for “woke Gossip Girl.” But Safran clarified things in an interview with The Daily Beast, stating, “If anyone’s ever hung out with any rich kids right now, they’re aware of their privilege. They have to be. The Kardashians talk about it all the time. Just because you’re aware of your privilege doesn’t mean you don’t abuse it.”

As this episodes proves at nearly every turn, abuse it, these characters still do. While they may not be rude to “the help,” they direct that behavior toward the molders of their supposedly great minds, their teachers. The kids are self-aware, but it’s a self-awareness that lacks any insight or wisdom. Because despite all the drugs and sex, they’re not exactly worldly kids; they know their world, and even if they try to pretend otherwise (like the Obie character), it’s all still extremely insular. Which is why a returning Gossip Girl works to shake up their worldview, to put them on high alert. As Safran said, these rich kids are aware of their privilege; the thing is, they’re possibly even more obnoxious for it. When Zoya asks if someone else possibly deserved the scholarship to the school, Julien’s defense of literally signing off on said scholarship is an oblivious, “Why would you think someone else deserves it more than you?” A concept like that has literally never crossed a character like Julien’s mind, a character who’s the type to talk about how she’s earned everything she’s gotten as an influencer, without even thinking for a second that she wouldn’t even be in such a position if not for who her father is.

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Sure, Julien would consider herself “woke,” especially in moments like the one where she tells Zoya, “You don’t have to drink. We don’t peer pressure.” But based on everything leading up to that moment and the fact that it’s followed up by Julien overwhelming Zoya with the rules of being in her friend group, obviously, a line like that is not to be taken at face value. But like so many other shows in this genre—and it doesn’t help that this is a revival of one of them—Gossip Girl is seemingly being taken at face value, despite Safran clearly knowing what he’s doing.

As self-aware as this show is, to be this self-aware, both the material and the onscreen talent have to resonate. Safran and Gossip Girl do have the material, both when it comes to poking fun at the original series and the awareness that these characters have (while also acknowledging that they don’t know what they don’t know). In terms of the cast itself, that is where pilots can be tricky. The most proven quantities of the young cast are arguably Doherty and Alyn Lind (whose older sister currently stars on Big Sky), with Smith showing the most potential of the lesser-known cast upfront, and Alexander having the most difficult task of the series, pulling off the influencer with hidden depth role. The influencer part is locked down. The depth is still on a wait-and-see basis. But in true teen drama fashion, Gossip Girl has chosen its adult cast extremely well. Luke Kirby pops up for a second as Julien’s dad, and Laura Benanti will be appearing on the show, among other notable names. Plus, the quartet of teachers—played by Tavi Gevinson, Adam Chanler-Berat, Rana Roy, and Megan Ferguson—brings a specific chaotic millennial energy that has been kept under wraps in the promotion of the series. It’s actually this dynamic that reveals this revival isn’t just about being the show for a new generation. The teachers are just as obsessed with the world of Gossip Girl as the original millennial audience, also essentially telling the youngsters, “Do the old thing instead!” by becoming Gossip Girl.

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Which brings us to this episode’s eponymous girl on the MTA, Gevinson’s Kate Keller. Naturally, there has been criticism about the ages of the actors playing teenagers here—while also criticizing the fact that a 25-year-old is somehow not playing a teenager. But her casting makes sense as soon as Gossip Girl is finally brought up, to the point where it’s difficult not to just call out, “Oh, she’s going to be Gossip Girl.” Just as it’s difficult not to track what her journey will be as soon as she projects jealousy over the fact that novelist Dan Humphrey was the original Gossip Girl: She’s going to become a monster.

The smartest thing this pilot does is reveal Gossip Girl’s identity ASAP. A major part of what hurt the latter seasons of the original is everyone’s obsession over Gossip Girl’s identity, ending with the Gossip Dan reveal. Removing the mystery takes away a storytelling crutch (and eventual hindrance) from the start, which is the type of thing that should allow past fans to breathe a sigh of relief. And to invoke Pretty Little Liars, quite frankly, the teachers as Gossip Girl is about as insane as anything that was ever on that series—in a good way. The height of this particular insanity is when Chanler-Berat’s character stands outside in the rain and photographs Zoya and Obie undressing. And the follow-up clenches it, as he frantically tells Keller, “The only time I felt more gross than standing here showing you these was the moment that I took them to show you. I should be arrested.” This is infinitely more self-awareness than Pretty Little Liars ever had with the Ezra/Aria saga, and it’s clearly just the tip of the iceberg.

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For anyone who still doesn’t think this Gossip Girl is in on the joke, look no further than Keller’s line in the teachers’ lounge: “This school produced great people. Caroline Kennedy. Colson Whitehead. Nate Archibald.” Nate Archibald, a newspaper mogul by the age of 20, despite the series never definitively acknowledging if he could even read and whose password for everything for “soccer.” Sure, there are eye-roll-inducing lines about the original series being “pre-cancel culture,” but that’s more the result of the show existing in an eye-roll-inducing era in which people earnestly say “cancel culture” and “woke Gossip Girl” in the first place. It also follows up that line with a much better one: “Did you get to the part where [Blair Waldorf] was Princess of Monaco for six months?”

Unfortunately because of this era, Gossip Girl’s new ethos is that of a post-truth world, in which everything “she” (the returning voice of Kristen Bell) says is true simply because. While this show makes a point to say that Gossip Girl’s depiction of Blair and Serena was based solely on others’ perspectives—not knowing the real girls—the original Gossip Girl told the painful truth. Even when it actively ruined Dan’s life. Here, the rules no longer matter, because these kids are even worse. There is no actual conflict between Julien and Zoya, so they create one. And the results are the most inorganic part of a show that’s existence is all about the inorganic.

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Truly, the biggest problem with the teachers becoming Gossip Girl is the fact that in their desire to take down Julien’s crew, they rope Zoya into it. Playing on the series’ set of rules, it makes sense to go after the kids who regularly verbally abuse and harass you, who get your colleagues fired just because they can. There are technically no good guys in that fight, which makes it even more delicious. It doesn’t make sense for Keller to use newbie scholarship student Zoya as fodder, even though her logic is for Zoya to come out on top of all of this. While the logic of creating Serena Vs. Blair: Part Deux is sound, the logic to outsource its Serena isn’t. An outsider coming inside isn’t a new concept for Gossip Girl, nor is a civil war amongst the young reigning class. But the latter at least tracks more than Keller bringing a student who trusts and respects her into any of this. Again, it’s obvious that Gossip Girl will go down a path of it turning Keller into a monster, just as it’s obvious that the fact she ropes Zoya into Gossip Girl’s web means she was a monster all along.

Being obvious or predictable isn’t a problem, but as far as manufactured teen drama goes, it doesn’t get more manufactured than Julien and Zoya’s feud. Yes, there are clear issues just beneath the surface due to their family situation, but none of that prevents their argument post-fashion show from landing with a thud. In a show that has its teenagers act more adult than they are, there’s perhaps nothing more childish than Zoya being furious with Julien for not chastising her friends for their cruel prank in the middle of the fashion show she was modeling in. I suppose if characters going to therapy is the bane of juicy drama, then having a character simply say, “I was hired to do a job and did the job, like a professional.” is probably right there up with it. And that’s the problem with this feud that centers this series: It officially begins (even after the scholarship scandal) with a moment that’s completely unworthy of being the catalyst.

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Stray observations

  • How is it that Gossip Girl on Instagram doesn’t count as targeted harassment (against minors, even)? Sure, blogs are old school, but at least that removed some form of social media-related accountability.
  • The greatest mystery of this show is actually trying to figure out adult characters’ names. For now, Adam Chanler-Berat’s character is named “Adam Chanler-Berat’s character.”
  • In case you were wondering who Rebecca, the teacher that introduced the others to Gossip Girl, is supposed to be, she’s the pay-off to a throwaway line from the original Gossip Girl’s second season finale (written by Safran). As Blair and Chuck tried to figure out who Gossip Girl was—realizing she had to be in the same grade—Rebecca Sherman was one of their guesses.
  • When the teachers first pitched the idea of things being Monet versus Julien, I was very interested, as I clocked Monet as the series’ Blair immediately. Unfortunately, it looks like Monet and Luna are the new Kati and Isabel. I’ve discussed this in previous reviews, but the art of the teen drama mean girl is an especially difficult one, one that has seemingly been lost to time. You now either get someone who is absolutely vile (Chanel Oberlin, Scream Queens) or you get a living GIF (Cheryl Blossom, Riverdale). But of the mean girl performances in this episode, Smith’s was the one I instantly bought as something with the potential to be much more.
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