Review: HBO Max's 'Gossip Girl' reboot is a stunning failure through an Instagram filter. XOXO.
"Gossip Girl" should have stayed dead.
From 2007-12, CW's drama starring Blake Lively, Leighton Meester and Penn Badgley detailed the lifestyles of the rich and famous among Manhattan's upper echelon of teens. It was decadent, sexy, ridiculous and juicy, the kind of series that helped build CW's reputation as a youth network and turned Lively into a star.
It is also the kind of series that is nearly impossible to replicate successfully.
But that's not stopping HBO Max from its latest remake out of the Warner Bros. library, with a new crop of privileged students at an elite New York high school (streaming Thursdays, ★ out of four). Based on the books by Cecily von Ziegesar and the CW series from Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the new version, from original writer Joshua Safran, captures none of its predecessor's essence. Unlike similar sequels such as CW's "90210" or Peacock's "Saved by the Bell," none of the original cast members are involved in the new series, although it never misses a chance to name-drop former characters.
While CW's "Gossip" wasn't always well written, it was unfailingly entertaining; HBO Max's version rarely falls into that second category. It's a cringe-worthy slog, full of unappealing acting, atrocious writing and plot twists that verge on the sociopathic.
On paper, a Generation Z reboot of the millennial classic seems like a very good idea. After all, "Gossip" was a prescient story about the dangers and complications of living our lives online, something that has only become more true in nearly a decade since the CW series went off the air. But not even the return of Kristen Bell's lilting narration as Gossip Girl can save the bad dialogue she's forced to spew.
The series focuses on Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) the Queen Bee of not just the school but of New York itself and her wealthy friends. Julien is the daughter of a famous musician and an Instagram influencer. Her social circle includes Luna (Zión Moreno) and Monet (Savannah Smith), Julien's unofficial publicist and agent; Obie (Eli Brown), her well-intentioned boyfriend; Aki (Evan Mock) and Audrey (Emily Alyn Lynd), an insecure couple; and Max (Thomas Doherty) the smarmy stand-in for Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) of the original series.
Everything is peachy keen in the lives of the teens until Zoya (Whitney Peak) enrolls at school. Zoya is Julien's estranged half-sister; their mother left Julien's father for Zoya's and then died while giving birth to Zoya. Unbeknownst to their friends or families, Zoya and Julien connected on social media and conspired to go to the same school. What should be a sweet reunion sparks unending drama. And it's all documented, and at times orchestrated, by the seemingly omniscient "Gossip Girl," now an Instagram user copying the antics of the onetime blogger, this time sharing snaps of the teens in compromising situations.
What makes this "Gossip" stand out from the original – other than stealing a bit of the "One Tree Hill" plot when it comes to half-siblings – is its inclusion of the teachers as major characters, particularly Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson, an influencer turned actress), who are inappropriately entangled in the lives of their students. HBO Max has asked critics to refrain from spoiling too much of this plot, but it is the most bafflingly terrible part of the series.
The biggest sin of this "Gossip" is that the writers seem to understand little of their subjects. The characters don't act or sound like teenagers ("don't straight-shame me" is among the most asinine lines). The use of social media doesn't feel particularly hip, and even the adult characters are stiff and nonsensical rather than fully formed humans. Except for the sex-crazed Max, played by Doherty with a bit of charm and allure, none of the characters have romantic or platonic chemistry. They are akin to the fake robot influencers created by crafty coders – automatons that say what their puppet masters think are all the right things but are very wrong indeed.
There is something so pathologically deranged about the reboot that it inevitably will win some fans. They'll come for its flaws, for the messy narrative, humorously bad acting and absurd plot twists. But this is not the kind of show that deserves acclaim for its inanity. It should not be rewarded for a plot in which adults' behavior verges on child abuse, for acting that's so terrible that community theaters would be appalled, nor for being one more mismanaged attempt to portray Generation Z as entitled, overly woke brats who get what's coming to them.
We are living in the age of reboots and remakes, as the ever-increasing number of streaming services compete for subscribers nostalgic for stories they've seen before. So maybe the return of "Gossip" was inevitable. But if there was a better way to update this story for 2021 as insightful, fun and steamy, and maybe even besting the original, this certainly isn't it.
This is the laziest kind of reboot, one that hopes you'll be too distracted by a familiar title to realize the actual end product is terrible. But it's an abject failure, no matter how many times Gossip Girl says "XOXO."