Nearly 10 years after the original show ended, Gossip Girl has returned, along with its omniscient blogger and a new group of wealthy teenagers for her to harass. But this time around, the series centers on a diverse, socially conscious, sexually experimental cast of well-off characters. Executive producer Joshua Safran declared these rich kids would be “aware of their privilege” and reckon with what that means in today’s world. But this is Gossip Girl—viewers aren’t looking for relatable, down-to-earth corporate scions. They want narcissistic monsters who fret over frivolous events and stir up low-stakes drama. Like Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf before them, Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) and her crew sport designer clothing, are on the VIP list for Broadway shows, and have artists like Princess Nokia play at their parties last minute. Only, these elite teens are bogged down by guilt over their wealth and grapple with other social issues, and as a result, this sequel series never reaches the outlandish heights of the original.
There have been plenty of opportunities for characters to dig into some Blair-like pettiness or crank up the dramatics to Serena’s level, but the interpersonal drama always finds a way to quickly resolve itself. In the fourth episode, the writers introduced the villainous heir to the original’s Georgina Sparks, who always knew how to get the best of the core group, but dismissed him just as things were getting good. Milo (Azhy Robertson) is a stony 10-year-old using Russian bots and digging up Julien’s old tweets in order to get her canceled—more riveting and cutthroat than anything else that’s happened thus far. It’s a shame Zoya’s (Whitney Peak) conscience got the better of her and she sent her lackey walking.
In the Halloween episode, the seed was planted for a queen bee showdown between Julien and Zoya and another powerful duo from a neighboring school, Pippa (Ella Rubin) and Bianca (Katherine Reis). Here, a true nemesis emerged, as this rival pair stole Julien’s social media planner and ruined Julien and Zoya’s dual costume, forcing the sisters to think quickly or go down in flames. Pippa and Bianca hearken to Gossip Girl’s past, in attitude and tenacity (the two literally dressed up as Serena and Blair). However, there’s been no mention of these scheming girls since the Halloween party. Instead, all the contentiousness has come from the grueling relationships between the Constance Billard teens and their parents.
The episode centering around Jeremy O. Harris’ Broadway play was an excellent setup for theatrics, as all the characters were pulled together for one event, with Julien and Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty) plotting against their secretive parents and Zoya attempting her own Pygmalion transformation to fit in. By the end of the episode, though, Julien and Zoya reconciled, and Max’s plotting was derailed by his familial issues.
The series has tried to bring real issues into what was originally merely soapy drama, and has found itself out of its depth. The original was shallow at its core, which was part of its charm. One could get wrapped up in the dumbest relationship details and drama because greater matters didn’t loom throughout each episode. The dread now ruins the escapism viewers seek in a show like Gossip Girl. We know things are terrible; there’s no need to constantly bring it up, especially when you’re rebooting a vapid CW show about high schoolers. In one episode, the teens brush up against police violence at a protest in a scene as effective as Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi olive branch. The commotion pushes Julien and former flame Obie (Eli Brown) together, as they kiss beneath swirling police lights. Julien’s antics, which would have otherwise been enjoyable, are incongruous in this setting, which reminds viewers of police violence perpetrated against protestors and marginalized communities fighting for equality over the last year.
The existence of the Gossip Girl account feels more malignant this time around; nothing is off-limits. The teens’ exploits are now being exposed by adults—namely, the Constance Billard teachers, led by Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson). They share personal documents that nearly get Zoya and her father, Nick (Johnathan Fernandez), kicked out of her apartment, and Kate then tries to date Nick as a way to lock down more information on Zoya and Julien’s dead mother. The existence of Gossip Girl becomes more and more questionable as Keller continues to head down this dark road because she doesn’t feel like she’s her industry’s “Meryl Streep.” Having the teachers run the account saps the joy out of what was previously a relatively harmless, salacious series of dispatches written by one of the teens’ peers. The viewers are not alone in their excitement for when, not if, this will all blow up in the teachers’ faces, especially Kate’s.
There are enough glimpses of the old Gossip Girl to keep viewers hanging on, if by their fingertips. Such moments are seen whenever the teens stop mulling over larger societal issues and really dig into their petty problems. Audrey Hope (Emily Alyn Lind) unleashed a bit of her brattiness in the most recent episodes, bickering with nurses while doting over her hospitalized mother, and screaming at guests who dared bring lilies to her bedside. She also cheated on her boyfriend, Aki (Evan Mock), with Max, the pseudo Chuck Bass (how very Blair Waldorf!). It was enjoyable watching Audrey and Aki run around trying to keep the secret of their attraction to Max away from each other, ultimately leading to the threesome everyone saw coming.
A major shift has been teased for Julien, who now seeks to up her influencer profile by meeting with numerous high-profile makeup companies, and make a serious effort to get her boyfriend back (even if she’s unsure of her feelings). After taking some time off as the semi-ruthless and highly judgmental leader, Julien has the potential to get back in her groove in the second half of the season, if the show can pivot away from trying to pit her against her sister, Zoya.
As a glittering yet underused character, Luna (Zión Moreno) has the attitude and flair to be a true queen bee. She’s a cunning planner and social media strategist who steers clear of the problems plaguing the core group. If the new Gossip Girl creative team wants a chance at breaking through the way the original series did, they should bring Luna to the forefront. The writers keep trying to show how the characters are “just like us,” while ignoring the ways they’re not. It’s the space between that’s most interesting, and Luna offers plenty of distance between her worries and those of “regular people.”
For the series’ return in November, Safran has teased more cameos by characters from the original series (unfortunately, no one from the central cast) and a Thanksgiving episode. That’s promising, since the Thanksgiving episodes produced some of the most memorable moments in the original. But if the show continues to weigh down its theatrics with heavy-handed messaging, we might be better off with another rewatch of the original.