There’s a moment in episode one of HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot, available for streaming July 8, when I realized it had the original show’s DNA. It happens at the very end: Queen bee Julien (Jordan Alexander) is headlining a fashion show where, unbeknownst to her, her minions, Monet (Savannah Smith) and Luna (Zión Moreno), have concocted a plan to thwart new girl Zoya (Whitney Peak), who happens to be Julien’s half-sister. What that specific plan is doesn’t matter, but the sabotage would make Blair Waldorf proud. And the outfits they’re wearing make the O.G. Constance Billard girls look downright plain.
It’s delicious, candy-coated fun—a little bitchy, very cheeky, and highly addictive. In short, all the ingredients that made Gossip Girl 1.0 so effective. This may surprise fans who’ve followed the online chatter about the reboot. Showrunner Joshua Safran has insisted this new reimagining is more “woke”—the kids are socially conscious, there are no catfights, no limos…no fun, essentially. Many feared Gossip Girl 2.0 would be so cannibalized by 2021 buzzwords it might forget that it’s, well, a show about girls who gossip.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. HBO Max’s Gossip Girl is chock-full of gossip, gowns, and garish displays of wealth. The central characters are stylish, cunning, and painfully hot. And aside from a few ham-fisted moments of “wokeness,” the show presents its diversity as all pop culture should: as natural, as normal, as “why hasn't this been the standard all along?” Safran and co-executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who helmed the original GG, took a page from Shonda Rhimes’s handbook and made a world just as enticing and exclusive as Blair and Serena’s but filled it with people everyone can identify with.
There’s still sex, but much of it is queer. There are still Instagrammable beauty moments, but they’re from characters with many skin tones. Mean girls are still tossing their hair and scheming on the Met steps, but sometimes their hair is in locs. Sometimes they have no hair at all. Gossip Girl’s representation (and “woke” sensibility) work because it’s simply embedded into the story. It’s not a “thing” the way Safran’s tweets may have suggested it would be.
“Certain things are essential to the Gossip Girl franchise: a strong, complicated female dynamic at the center, romantic triangles—which exist in the new show but are updated—and parent-kid relationships,’ Savage tells me over Zoom while sitting next to Schwartz, who chimes in, “And the existence of Gossip Girl: this ubiquitous, omniscient online presence tormenting these kids. If those elements were in place, then the possibilities were wide open.”
Safran echoes this sentiment. As someone who wrote and executive-produced on the original series, he had no issues dreaming up a continuation. “It’s in my DNA,” he says. “So it was very easy to make sure the show still felt like the show. The fun of it was now, ‘Let’s talk about 2021. What do we see in the world now? What do we think the world is?’ And then it was up to me to teach the writers the Gossip Girl math.”
That “math,” as Safran calls it, is something Gossip Girl fans know well: Every episode tracks several soapy storylines, which come to a head at a central event (a fashion show, a birthday party, a benefit of some kind). Meanwhile, the character Gossip Girl—voiced again by Kristen Bell, only this time on Instagram—is around to document it all. The new GG very much sticks to this format; it's just, again, not all characters who look like Blake Lively.
There is a Serena van der Woodsen type, though. That would be Julien, an Instagram influencer with thousands of online followers and two-real life ones, Monet and Luna, who keep their queen on top by any means necessary. Their world turns upside down upon the arrival of Zoya, a Jenny Humphrey—ish freshman whom Julien’s known for years. But Monet, Luna, and Julien’s other friends don’t know this, and the first few episodes center on Zoya’s immersion into their clique. And soon, into the heart of Julien’s boyfriend, Obie (Eli Brown).
Other characters have shimmers of the O.G.s, as well. Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty) is a sexually fluid Chuck Bass (minus the problematic qualities); Zoya’s father has big Rufus Humphrey energy; and Obie is a hybrid of Nate and Dan. However, Safran says none of this was intentional.
“I desperately tried to stay away from anything that was like the original characters,” he tells me. “But halfway through the pilot, I called Stephanie and said, ‘Max is like Chuck!’ Stephanie was like, ‘I knew this already.’ Cecily von Ziegesar [the author of the Gossip Girl books] did her research. These types of characters are the types in this world, and these types are the same dating back to Edith Wharton. There are Chucks, there are Maxes. The only difference is Max has boundaries. He’s going to ask, ‘Do I have your consent?’ because he’s a child of 2021. But he still has those hedonistic qualities.”
Savage agrees. “It’s inherent in the material and storytelling that there are a number of archetypes,” she says. “Whether it’s Chuck Bass or James Spader in an ’80s movie, these delicious characters reappear over the years in different forms.”
Shows like Gossip Girl reappear every year too. Our culture’s obsession with the young, rich, and wealthy has endured for eons: The O.C., 90210, The Hills, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. There’s a voyeuristic, love-to-hate quality to this genre that keeps us thoroughly entertained. These shows are fun and shallow, and that’s okay. Entertainment is allowed to be just that.
But Gossip Girl is different. Where reboots of 90210 and The Hills failed, GG succeeds. Instead of just recycling an old idea and thinking that’s enough, GG offers the familiar but still asks something intriguing: How has gossip changed since 2008? How has communication? And wealth? And status? Those are ever-evolving concepts, so Gossip Girl 2.0 not only works, it means a 3.0 could too. And a 4.0.—should they ever happen.
Safran says it best: “What this franchise explores, and how it explores it—you could make this show every decade. Gossip Girl is perennial."
Christopher Rosa is the entertainment editor at Glamour. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast