'Gossip Girl' 2.0 Shows The Pitfalls of Reboot Culture

The beloved teen soap has been updated for 2021, but it's more interested in its own mythology than in its storytelling.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
GosJordan Alexander, Savannah Smith, Zion Moreno
Photo: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

This article includes spoilers for the Gossip Girl reboot.

Before I do anything else, I have to come out to you as a hater, both in general (this glass stays half empty baby), and also specifically: in this instance, the particular thing I hate is ‘reboot’ culture. Everything now is a reboot, and we are expected to be excited about it. If it’s not a reboot, it’s part seventeen in a franchise. Both of these tendencies point towards a reality where a cultural object’s referencing of other popular artefacts from the past is intended to itself be taken as art. 


This is bad, boring, unserious, and patronising. It sucks, and is making us stupider and less inquiring as a culture. And so: Gossip Girl 2.0.

I’m not here to say that the original Gossip Girl, which aired from 2007 to 2012, itself based on a series of books, was a work of art. It was, ultimately, a varyingly-acted, increasingly poorly-plotted soap which aired on the US’s home of self-aware teen frivolity, The CW (the network also airs the new version, in tandem with HBO Max). Even though it unravelled along the way – the final reveal regarding the true identity of the show’s titular tattle-tale merchant remains one of the most nonsensical, ‘we’ve written ourselves into a corner, lads’ plot twists ever to make it onto screens – what it did possess, however, was a certain simplicity: there was a central friendship-cum-rivalry, and romances to root for, and the rest of the show hinged on that. 

The same can’t be said of Gossip Girl 2021, which recently aired a mid-season finale and will return in November (the first six episodes come to the BBC on the 25th of August). The show’s first run has been marked by bad reviews and the off-putting sense that it is too distracted by and pleased with itself and its own mythology (for example, in a very meta social media move, the show actually posts to its own Gossip Girl Instagram account, in character) to actually be concerned with the aspects of storytelling that are the crux of creating appeal: compelling characters, and any stakes at all. 


A lot of the decisions made by the show speak to an extreme sense of style over substance. There’s one scene – where the characters are sat talking on the iconic ‘steps of the Met’ – which is soundtracked by Lorde’s “Solar Power,” a song which was released only a few weeks before it was included on Gossip Girl. Anyone that has heard the song will be familiar with the fact that its instrumental is sparse, with a high-in-the-mix vocal. As such, when it’s played under conversation in the scene, the result just sounds like people are talking over one another, and the song, which could certainly be atmospheric in the right context, just adds nothing. The decision to include it feels like it encapsulates one of Gossip Girl 2.0’s biggest problems: it places more importance on aligning itself with specific cultural artefacts and their characteristics (Lorde; the ‘newness’ of the song) than on the very simple stuff, like telling coherent stories.  

A large part of such cogency is characters. In this initial run of six, there were two episodes where the plot and the emotions driving it simply didn’t make sense to me, in that the mechanics for getting from one part of the story to another were confusing and I struggled to follow them. Half-sisters Zoya (Whitney Peak) and Julien (Jordan Alexander) find themselves at school together via a plan that they have to keep hidden from their fathers, who dislike one another. At first they’re happy, but then Julien sees her social position threatened by her sister. Something complicated happens at a fashion show, and then they don’t get along anymore. Repeat every episode.


The series’ A plot hinges on this up-and-down, as it did with Blair (Leighton Meester) and Serena’s (Blake Lively) relationship in the original. The difference here is that it’s difficult to know what either Zoya and Julien want, because there’s been little convincing work done by the show to establish their relationship, or what Julien’s influencer status means to her, or Zoya’s actual reason for desiring a slice of it for herself – that is, if she even really does.

Indeed, the actual central rivalry seems not to be between two characters, but between authenticity (good) and artifice (bad), played out on the stage of social media. Zoya is the “real” girl tempted by the falsity and performance of the Upper East Side, while Julien is the it-girl learning that there are some real life connections that Instagram networking can’t replace. This is actually a pretty enticing concept, which is complicated in an interesting way by the use of Kate Keller, Tavi Gevinson’s put-upon teacher, who is, it’s revealed in the first episode, behind this new iteration of Gossip Girl. The financial disparities between Kate and her students, plus her genuine enthusiasm for the subject she teaches, places her at the centre of the authenticity/artifice Venn diagram when she secretly resurrects the dormant spirit of Gossip Girl in order to see if it can gain her the respect her students refuse to give her. 


On paper, it sounds like an intriguing dynamic, but execution is everything. We barely see Kate’s frustration with her wealthy students (save for one incident in the first episode) – we mostly just hear about it instead. It’s harder, then, to sympathise with her character and her motivations for starting the Gossip Girl Instagram page, which, even in a soapy show like this one, is a pretty wild thing for a teacher to do.

The show does a lot of this – telling us, rather than showing us, smartly reeling off cultural references that are supposed to explain the characters and their proclivities, rather than allowing us genuine glimpses into who they are, and why they are that way. (Savannah Smith, for example, is great fun as the Blair Waldorf analogue Monet De Haan, but it’s hard to invest in the character because while Leighton Meester’s Blair was fuelled by a lifetime of playing second fiddle to the golden child Serena Van Der Woodsen, Monet’s entire arc so far seems to be ‘is mad that Julien isn’t accepting her PR advice.’ Why should we care if we don’t really know why Monet does?)

Gossip Girl spends less time on the interesting social differences which could tease dramatic out tensions (though there is one storyline whereby Zoya bores of her boyfriend Obie, played by Eli Brown, because his wealth insulates him from the issues he purports to care about) than it does gesturing generally towards social justice topics. And though many viewers would be happy with a Gossip Girl featuring beautiful, rich kids cavorting around and warring for power, status and money, untethered to reality, the reboot explicitly stated that it would be offering something different, as showrunner Joshua Safran told Variety that it would see its characters “wrestle with their privilege.”

So far, Gossip Girl 2.0 has mostly failed to present what that actually means, though a class-clash dinner, and scenes at a protest for an admittedly vague cause in the mid-season finale suggest that in its second half, the show might engage with this more. Right now, though, it seems that the series is stuck between what it feels is its responsibility to a more politically-inclined young audience, and its fundamental premise, which is: ‘the most privileged teens in the most privileged city behave badly towards one another.’  

It’s easy to see the reasons why a Gossip Girl reboot was tempting. It was a generationally popular show, and the culture that it was based on – the internet, blogging, surveillance – has only become more prevalent in our society since the show first left screens. But what any TV series needs is solid ground: characters to care about, relationships to invest in. The very fact of the reboot, and the novelty of an update – new references within a familiar format – is not enough to make good TV on its own, despite what our culture, oversaturated with constant remakes and franchise re-tellings, might have you think.