Film & TV

‘Gossip Girl’ Returns a Delightful, Alluring Mess

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You know you love it. The sleek world of salacious secrets and intrigue has returned. A “Gossip Girl” sequel series has debuted following students at the same Manhattan private school as the predecessor. 

Executive produced by the original team of Joshua Safran, Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz, “Gossip Girl” returns without missing a beat. Nine years following its initial sign-off, the primetime soap feels immensely fresh in its first four episodes, adapting to the modern technology landscape and the social media generation. 

This time, Gossip Girl isn’t a secret force in the shadows. She’s not a menacing WordPress blog. She’s an Instagram account run by teachers at the school. The twist flips “Gossip Girl” on its head and makes for a meta spin on the classic drama.

The moral corruption of the main cast carries on from the original, but with added layers. As teacher Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson) grapples with the rise from powerless to influential, the show puts viewers in the driver’s seat of the “Gossip Girl” persona. 

Kate serves as an anti-hero, a pseudo-protagonist who drives the story and stirs the pot, exposing the elite and corrupting herself in the process. It’s a brilliant twist to refresh the world of “Gossip Girl” — and one that recovers from the truly abhorrent reveal of Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) as Gossip Girl in the original series’ finale. Dan was not funny or clever, so it’s insulting to assume viewers would ever believe he’d write the campy Gossip Girl lines.

In place of Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and Serena Van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) are Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) and Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), half sisters who finally meet in person after hatching an online plan to get Zoya to transfer to Julien’s prep school.

The initial episodes set up a solid dynamic and rivalry between the sisters, but a convoluted one. Early on, they’re unable to match the effortless chemistry of their predecessors. Julien settles in the Blair role with the witty snark intact, but the writing team will need to develop stronger emotional ties to have viewers root for her.

Zoya works as a Serena and Jenny Humphrey (Taylor Momsen) hybrid, and she fills their annoying yet semi-likable shoes. Peak (“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” “Molly’s Game”) delivers a strong performance, but the writers room delivers a dull character. Her backstory is fascinating, but her story itself? Underwhelming.

The rest of the cast also suffer from shallow development. The cast is overstuffed and underserved. Luna La (Zion Moreno) is a flashy sidekick to Julien yearning for a breakaway moment. Moreno (“K-12,” “Control Z”) enters the cast as a relative newcomer, shining in her limited screen time. She girl-bosses the show in its glossy forte with her Georgina Sparks (Michelle Trachtenberg) energy.

Luna and fellow sidekick Monet de Haan (Savannah Smith) resemble Blair’s sidekicks of yesteryear, but this time the writers made the smart choice of giving them main cast credit. It’s what they — and the viewers — deserve. But more dimensions would be much appreciated.

The most interesting dynamic comes from couple Audrey Hope (Emily Alyn Lind) and Aki Menzies (Evan Mock). Despite the gravitas of the series and the hyperreality of this elite world, the two characters feel oddly relatable. Aki is a sweet, easily malleable character who provides a solid heart and levity and Audrey slides into frame with layers just waiting to be peeled open. 

Then there’s Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), the Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) of “Gossip Girl” 2.0. Max manages to be more endearing than Chuck in the early episodes — a feat that’s rather easy to accomplish considering Chuck attempted to force himself on Jenny in episode one of the original. Still, hats off to that.

Unfortunately, even in the hyperconscious age of 2021, “Gossip Girl” falls prey to the worst teen drama subplot — the student/teacher relationship. The ever-disturbing romanticization of an imbalanced power dynamic wrought both by age and career holds the show down like an anchor.

One would think the backlash after “Riverdale” attempted its own foray into this statutory rape dynamic would’ve steered the writers clear. Sadly, it didn’t. But it’s never too late to edit that plot out before the episodes air, HBO Max. Or show the teacher as the predator he is, and maybe this plot would have some teeth. Time will tell.

Despite its failings, “Gossip Girl” is a reboot done right. It maintains the glossy style of the original, the zeitgeist-capturing musical montages and the dynamic cast. It’s rough around the edges — quite like the original — but charming as a whole.

Fans who still have an appetite for teen drama shouldn’t miss out on the new era of “Gossip Girl.” But they’ll likely miss the iconic theme song. 

The first six episodes of “Gossip Girl” will drop weekly on Thursdays, followed by the final six episodes of season one in the fall.

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