If there’s one thing social media reveals about Generation Z, especially when you’re in a non-stop pop culture bubble, it’s that they lack a certain amount of pop culture literacy. This is often attributed to the fact that they did not grow up with VH1’s I Love The ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s series playing on a loop in their homes. For that, it might seem like what’s old is new again for them or that they haven’t seen or been exposed to all of the tricks of various genres. At least, not outside of a TikTok literally telling them certain film and television tropes. Which is part of the reason a reboot of Gossip Girl can and should work: Not only is it exposing faithfuls to the new reality of what rich New York kids are like, it’s exposing its (supposedly) intended audience to the tricks of the teen genre trade. No one is asking Gossip Girl, of all shows, to provide something too new in terms of the genre, as plenty of millennials—like the teachers on this show again—are crying, “Do the thing that worked!” So it should come as no surprise when it does go down the well of old favorites.
First of all, I’d be remiss not to mention the continued thrill of hearing Gossip Girl chronicle the weekly events of New York’s elite. Simply on a structural level, the event-of-the-week is a smart framing device, as well as part of what makes Gossip Girl… Gossip Girl. When it comes to a lack of pop culture literacy, there’s always this that a show having a weekly event as the framing device is a sign of bad writing instead of an understanding of writing. In thinking of how a show like Gossip Girl exists to be aspirational—even when satirizing this world—it especially makes sense to have the various social engagements act as the focal points of the episodes. These are the places in which these characters have to interact, even when they’re on the outs. In the original Gossip Girl, the second episode revolved around a brunch that required narrative maneuvering to explain why Dan Humphrey would even be anywhere near. Here in “She’s Having A Maybe,” we get both a parent-teacher conference as an appetizer and a swanky fundraiser as the main course.
Which brings us to the introduction of Audrey’s mom, Kiki (Laura Benanti). Immediately, an eagle-eyed teen drama watcher asks themself if Kiki will either bail on the episode’s fundraiser set-piece altogether or come to the fundraiser and cause a (most likely drunk) scene. It could’ve gone either way, but whichever choice April Blair’s script made would immediately tell you what kind of neglectful parent (and possibly why) we’re going with here. As we learn, Audrey has to be the parent to her mother—who’s going through “a DIVORCE,” in Aki’s words—which is perfect teen drama fodder. That Kiki goes with the latter option (showing up and causing a drunk scene) gives us something to work with, as does the eventual reveal that her business has gone bankrupt. If you’re playing Teen Drama Bingo: Parent Edition, this episode is gold. It’s also especially gold for Emily Alyn Lind, who both continues to get the most substantial material (outside of Julien and Zoya) and gets some forward momentum (as Audrey and Max “surprisingly” hooked up) in her story.
Then you have the plot between Max and Rafa Caparros (Jason Gotay), the hot classics teacher who is not part of his colleague’s Gossip Girl scheme. (However, we can discuss which inappropriate storyline has the moral high ground.) A student-teacher affair is such old hat in this genre that the first season of Riverdale even revealed just how over it audiences were. As you may remember, in all the discussion—and praise—early Riverdale got as “Hot Archie Who Fucks,” the greatest strike against it was the Archie/Miss Grundy affair storyline. For no real reason other than the fact that it was just so boring at this point. In fact, when the original Gossip Girl did a student-teacher affair storyline, it was also very boring. So the idea of the Gossip Girl that can say “fuck” possibly thinking that a student-teacher affair storyline in 2021 is anything other than boring just feels off.
Which is why the best thing Gossip Girl does here with this plot is table the possibility of Max/Rafa until after Max graduates. HBO Max’s Gossip Girl obviously went to the school of Ryan Murphy (which led to the school of Teen Wolf, then Riverdale), where it has no problem reminding the audience these (especially male) actors aren’t actually teens. That’s how we get something like Thomas Doherty in nothing but a towel in a bathhouse. As I’ve written before, doing stuff like that is a matter of shows wanting to have their cake and eat it too, as it wants its audience to relate to its characters as kids but also reminds us in typically uncomfortable fashions that the actors are very much not. Doherty and Gotay are both very attractive actors, but I’m not rooting for a kid who’s stalking his teacher, and I’m definitely not rooting for a teacher who keeps leering at his student. And this isn’t one of those “criticisms” that’s tearing the show down for having “unlikeable” characters. It’s simply thinking we’re past this kind of story and that this version of Gossip Girl would be the type of show to know that. The only value I see in this storyline—other than attractive actors being attractive together—is the Gossip Girl implications. Because while Rafa verbally turns Max down multiple times, every one of their scenes is still porn for Gossip Girl. And what would be more interesting for the new Gossip Girl than to be faced with the fact that one of their own is pure fodder? Maybe then Keller and her crew would actually care about the lives they’re ruining.
I am curious to see if Gossip Girl will even have the patience to “edge”and save Max/Rafa. Despite everything he says in the episode, Rafa’s willpower doesn’t feel all that existent. Then again, Rafa doesn’t feel like he exists for anything other than this potential affair. Which brings up a major issue that “She’s Having A Maybe” reveals, even though it’s a solid post-pilot outing for the show: There are too many characters on this show. Specifically, series regulars. HBO Max’s Gossip Girl isn’t quite a well-oiled machine yet, but with its second episode—as much as it works as a companion piece to the pilot—it’s especially clear where the squeaky wheels are.
The obvious and most expendable squeaky wheel is the combination of Monet and Luna. While I praised Monet (and Savannah Lee Smith’s performance) in my review of the pilot, I noted my disappointment that she is one half of this Gossip Girl’s version of Kati and Isabel, the original’s most expendable UES characters. I also noted that Luna is tall. “She’s Having A Maybe” cements both characters as little more than the more devilish devils on Julien’s shoulder—as Audrey is the less devilish devil on Julien’s other shoulder—to the point where one could easily argue that they’re simply Julien’s Tyler Durdens. It’s a problem that Fight Club feels like a better fit for these characters’ existence than the obvious Heathers parallel. (The pilot suggests Monet at least exists, but I’m willing to be swerved.) While I’m sure there are real-life teens who exist solely to help build their teen influencer friends’ brands, Monet and Luna’s presence makes it feel like Julien is a character who can’t make her own decisions. And considering how amateurish so many of Julien’s own decisions are—from her Sister, Sister infiltration plan to her plan to bust Zoya shopping for school supplies—that’s a problem too.
But even as just minions, Monet and Luna at least fit the bill of what this show is and give performances. That’s not there at all with Evan Mock’s Aki. I recently saw someone compare Mock’s delivery to Chace Crawford’s early series work as Nate Archibald, but I would argue that Crawford’s performance never betrayed the story the show is trying to tell. Mock’s performance Aki, on the other hand, doesn’t come across as the member of the group who’s always objective or the peacekeeper, even though the dialogue makes sure to keep saying he is. Instead, in “She’s Having A Maybe,” his lack of inflection ends up making it seem like he’s having a fling with his girlfriend’s mom. In fact, if not for the story they’re actually telling with Aki/Max/Audrey, a secret boyfriend-mother affair would be the only explanation as to why Aki acts the way he does whenever Audrey talks to him about Kiki. It’s supposed to come across as him being strangely mature when talking to his teenage girlfriend about her mom’s having a hard time, but it instead comes off as him being more interested in her mother (in addition to Max) than her. In the story that’s actually happening, Mock doesn’t fare much better playing off scenery-chewing Doherty. Just like saying that Aki’s objective doesn’t actually make up for a lack of personality, adding “His words, not mine.” doesn’t save a stilted delivery of a line like “This Wolfe thinks he can huff and puff and blow this man.” (And he does say “Wolfe”/”wolf” like “woof.”)
However, I will say this episode works much better than the pilot when it comes to the Obie character. Despite how much more aware of how he and his friends come across Obie seems to be, it’s very telling that this is his pep talk to Zoya post-pilot Gossip Girl blast: “People try and take us down. They never can though. You’re one of us now.” The “good guy” of the group, Obie still subscribes to the same haves and have-nots mentality as his peers; he just goes to protests in between. “She’s Having A Maybe” reveals that the show knows exactly what it’s doing with a character like Obie, especially considering Joshua Safran’s comments about these characters’ privilege. As much good Obie does for the less fortunate, he is either too much of an optimist or simply too privileged to see the full picture. In my notes, I clocked that the fundraiser probably cost more money than they’ll even raise—even before Zoya basically says the same thing. According to Obie, “Oh, but the fact that everybody here is trying to do a good thing, I mean that’s gotta count for something.” The chance that most of the people in attendance even know what the fundraiser is for is slim. Remember, Julien pulled off the scholarship scheme because her dad doesn’t look through the scholarship applications. Because these people don’t actually care. Obie’s earnest obliviousness works much better than the self-righteousness that the pilot leaned into. It also helps that Eli Brown is especially charming here, since Obie is the type of character who doesn’t see anything wrong with dating his ex-girlfriend’s little sister and apparently takes 1%-er’s donations as proof they’re good people.
While “She’s Having A Maybe” continues to go down the path of revealing that Kate Keller is a monster who must be stopped, it does, unfortunately, dial back on the initial reason behind it. Yes, it’s funny to hear Wendy (Megan Ferguson) say “It’s time for a little quid pro… corruption.” but it’s in an episode that goes even further on Gossip Girl targeting Zoya without reaffirming the mission statement of this version of Gossip Girl. The point is supposed to be to take Julien and her crew down a peg or two, to make the rest of the student body fall in line. But “She’s Having A Maybe” doesn’t remind the audience that the teachers are retaliating against an unruly student body. Instead, when it’s not working to get dirt on Zoya (using her trust in Keller as a way in), it focuses more on the fact that the teachers believe the parents are the ones who suck. There’s room for that in this show, and “She’s Having A Maybe” does succeed in its first official taste of a substantial role for some of the parents, in the form of Nick (Johnathan Fernandez), Davis (Luke Kirby), and Kiki. But as a follow-up to “Just Another Girl On The MTA,” the teachers’ motivations for Gossip GIrl are especially muddled—which can’t be the case when in an early episode where Keller’s villainy is especially on display.
That Keller draws the line and deletes the photos of the art supply argument doesn’t do anything to give her points, considering the episode ends with her saying, “Let’s hope I never have to use it.” In that case, the “it” is the secret about why Zoya was kicked out of her old school. I brought up the idea of who has the moral high ground in this episode, Keller or Rafa, because both are teachers behaving abhorrently. Rafa technically hasn’t done anything, but would that defense work if someone 1had taken a picture of him staring at his naked student in a bathhouse? Keller, on the other hand, is stalking and cyberbullying teens—or just the one at this point—but she would argue she’s doing this all for a good reason. But that “good reason” isn’t really apparent in this episode. Because to maintain the Gossip Girl status quo without being completely turned off by the premise, the show needs to remind the audience that these kids are monsters to their teachers. And not in the sexy, Max/Rafa way. While what Keller and her colleagues are doing is madness, at least in the pilot, you can see where they have a leg to stand on. Here, we’re just watching Keller have a back and forth with the coolest kid in school; and while there’s a commentary to be made there about millennials looking to Zoomers for coolness validation, maybe now’s not the time, this early in the set-up.
However, if the show is pivoting away from the Julien/Zoya feud—at least until it builds up more of a rapport—then that’s for the best, especially after this episode. Julien has Zoya’s secret at her disposal—as does Gossip Girl—but as was made clear even in the pilot, it’s going to take a lot for her to reveal what it is. Because this rivalry is nothing more than two sisters having a very public sister fight, which is easily reconcilable. While I’ve noted how much these kids are still very much kids, no matter how adult they act, the Julien/Zoya story, in general, is the series’ most “kid’s table” element. As I questioned why Zoya would be so upset with Julien for not causing an additional scene at her fashion show in the pilot, here, I questioned what Julien’s smoking gun exactly is when it comes to catching Zoya and Obie at an art supply store. Purchasing school supplies. For underprivileged kids. These two episodes haven’t shown Nick to be much more than an emotionless parent-bot—other than in his scenes with Kate Keller, confirmed psychopath—but I’ll admit that I did see something resembling humanity as he voiced his disappointment with her for breaking her grounding. Though, again: They were buying school supplies for underprivileged kids. I feel like that possibly should’ve been addressed in the scene.
It’s been quite clear in these first two episodes just how little Julien (especially) and Zoya’s hearts are in their Gossip Girl-fueled “feud.” Julien’s plan to prove that Zoya’s not that innocent—keeping in mind that Julien’s the older sister, where Zoya is a 14-year-old freshman—is such small potatoes for Gossip Girl that the show really needs a new focus. So as Gossip Girl returns from the brink of cancelation and the series moves out of the early-episode set-up phase, one can hope that its target will have more focus than and oomph it does here.
- Hats off to the music supervisor for the transition from Doja Cat’s “Freak” to Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” (which the former samples). If we also say this episode’s title is a play on “(You’re) Having My Baby,” then the new Gossip Girl is a real haven for Anka heads.
- Whatever Zoya’s secret is, it apparently isn’t so bad that Julien sees her in a different light. So I guess it’s not a Serena Van Der Woodsen “I killed someone.”-level bomb. Don’t cue “U.R.A. Fever.” just yet.
- Davis gets so much right in his reconciliatory scene with Julien, only to still say, “When Nick took your mom from me.” Also, Julien believing that her dad will never speak to her again after the Zoya reveal? The only thing missing from that moment is Julien saying she’s going to run away from home. I’m thinking the main issue here is that Jordan Alexander’s performance gives off a much more innocent vibe than Queen B one. Julien truly feels like a kid playing grown-up, and other than Little J, that wasn’t the case for the original cast.
- Kate Keller: “Let’s hope I never have to use it.” Rima (Rana Roy) is the only one in the group who seems to have any issue with Keller saying that, by the way. Meanwhile, Jordan (Adam Chanler-Berat) is so clearly into Keller—who doesn’t realize it, as she’s into Nick—that he just completely ignores red flags like, “I have to get control back.” and “Do you know how hard her voice is? I thought it would be simple. But it’s not—it’s incredibly specific.” Keller talks about Gossip Girl as her endeavor, whereas Jordan talks about it in relationship terms (“we” and “our”). There is no “we” and “our” here.