HBO Max's reboot of the seminal millennial classic, Gossip Girl, is not good, but it does, perhaps unintentionally, deliver a useful message against cultural leftism.
Unlike the original CW series that succeeded at straddling the line between self-indulgent shock value and a humorous sense of self-awareness, the newest iteration of uberprivileged Upper East Side teenagers simply takes itself too seriously. But the silver lining of the series comes unintentionally, thanks to the show's perversion of the narrative conceit, as well as its accidental demonstration of the failure of wokeness.
(SPOILERS ABOUND FOR BOTH SERIES. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)
Unlike the young-adult book series the franchise was based on, the eponymous Gossip Girl is an actual, active character in the original television show. After years of the gang's futile attempts to ascertain the identity of the anonymous blogger who spills all their tea for public consumption, the show waits until the finale to reveal that "she" is none other than Brooklyn outsider Dan Humphrey, the arguable protagonist of the show. Although it creates obvious narrative conflicts (like in Season One, when Dan uses Gossip Girl to publish the fabricated rumor of his 14-year-old sister's deflowering), as a concept, it works. Dan, an aspiring writer who at this point has already been published in the New Yorker and penned a bestselling roman a clef, quite literally wrote himself into the story and thus into the heart of his lifelong dream girl, Serena van der Woodsen.
Psychologically screwed up? Absolutely. But is it oddly romantic and fitting for a show about spoiled and manipulative children? That's undeniable.
The new Gossip Girl chooses the opposite tack, not just revealing "her" actual identity from the outset, but twisting the entire power dynamic of the show on its head. Gossip Girl, arriving at the UES prep school from the original around a decade after the CW finale, is now an account run by bitter, scheming, and (crucially) nearly all-white teachers lamenting that teenagers are bratty sometimes.
It's hard to care about the new batch of Gossip Girl students, not because of a lack of acting chops, but rather because the writers are so clearly hiding behind the show's nominally "woke" casting. "Influencer" Julien and her long-estranged half-sister Zoya are both black, and best friends Aki and Max are bisexual (and sometimes with each other). But whereas all four of those characters give the audience something to sympathize with, the most insufferable lead is Julien's mediocre white boyfriend Obie. The son of a real estate scion, Obie not only dumps one sister for another in an attempt to prove how woke he is, but he also starts a literal riot to protest his parents' new housing development. (The Republican gains made from voters of color as a result of the 2020 race riots, often instigated by woke white children, aren't explicated within the show, but tonally, it does acknowledge that there's nothing noble in Obie's rabble-rousing.)
And without even trying, the show stumbles not into any form of riveting drama, but at least into a tableau vivant of wokeism's failure in achieving its goals.
The teachers, one of whom sleeps with the 17-year-old Max, never consider whether they're abusing their power. Even Kate Keller, the teacher who started the whole Gossip Girl crusade only to find herself ousted from the account's control, only considers whether this Foucauldian punishment will actually teach her students anything, not whether it is morally acceptable to enact such punishment at all. But the racial dynamics do not truly tell a meaningful story until the season's finale.
Over the course of the season, Julien (mostly) reconciles both with Zoya and Zoya's father Nick, an attorney who takes Julien in after her own famous father is fully canceled for alleged sexual predation. As a final act of seeking forgiveness, Julien's father asks to provide Nick with some funding so she and her sister can both remain in Manhattan — thus closer to school and allowing Nick to continue with more pro bono cases.
Meanwhile, the teachers reap what they sow. Instead of earning their usual holiday bonuses, the board elects to deny them. Kate then moonlights as an envoy for UES parents needing someone to return or purchase Christmas gifts. When the black billionaire mother of one of Kate's students stiffs Kate for a cab bill as a part of her gig, the mother doesn't hide the ball: Her stinginess is intentional after not just the teachers' refusal to show up for in-person schooling during the pandemic (which is treated as a relic of a recent past in the show), but also for the havoc wreaked by Gossip Girl among their children.
These are all valid points, and quite frankly, they're fully justified. Yet,
Karen Kate heads to Nick's apartment, expecting a fellow parent to take her side.
"And she just came back at me with the most insane, irrelevant, conservative bulls***," Kate tells Nick about the interaction, then shocked and offended at her realization that Nick took the money from Julien's father.
"Zoya deserves a dad who lives by an example he'd want her to follow!" says the teacher who has spent a dozen episodes publishing soft pornography of her students and specifically trying to ruin the life and familial ties of this daughter in particular.
Nick rightly tells Kate to screw off, in less mild terms, and the season overall ends with a thud rather than the bang of its predecessors. But the reboot's two greatest tactical errors may have salvaged the season, even if it's not good by any objective means, as something worth watching at least once. True, there's no megawatt smile like Serena's lighting up the screen or utterly magnetic scheming from a Blair or a Chuck to keep the audience on the seat of their pants. But there's something, something, that stares at the upper crust of 2021 for all of its ugliness and doesn't deny the perversion of progress wrought by "progressivism."