The original show was fabulously bonkers, packed with awfully rich people being awful to each other. The reboot is fatally earnest, and instantly doomed
None of us realised how good we had it in 2007, in our pre-Trump, pre-Brexit, pre-Covid bubble. We even had a Labour government, for chrissakes.
And we had Gossip Girl, a perfect confection of madness, the bubbles at the brim of our overfilled cup of complacency. It followed a group of uber-rich Upper East Side New York high schoolers who had names as excellent as their lives. Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester – yes, the actors had equally unbelievable names) was the queen bee, while her best friend/frenemy was Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively – see!). The permutations of their relationships with Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick), Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford, whose jawline should have got separate billing), poverty-stricken Dan and Jenny Humphreys (Penn Badgley and Taylor Momsen, who lived in a loft apartment in – ugh – Brooklyn) and Vanessa Abrams (Jessica Szohr) formed the mainstay of the show. There were also the times Blair became the princess of Monaco and Elizabeth Hurley played Nate’s boss and girlfriend so badly for 14 episodes that it is spoken of only in hushed whispers on the darknet.
The titular gossip girl was an unseen blogger (voiced by Kristen Bell) who kept track of everyone’s comings and goings, posted them all and stirred things up at every opportunity. The revelation of her identity at the end of its run was as fabulously bonkers as everything that had gone before. If you objected to it, it was clear you had misunderstood the past six years of beautiful insanity.
Gossip Girl the reboot (BBC One) is … none of that. Oh God, how I had hoped and prayed it would be good. I reckoned we all deserved it, you know? How foolish I was to think that 2021 would step up to right the many wrongs it, and the previous half decade, has wrought.
It follows the convolutions of a new crop of overprivileged students. This time the de facto leader is an Instagram influencer, Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander). Then there is her boyfriend, Obie Bergmann IV (Eli Brown), the priapic sybarite Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), the hapless Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind) and Aki Menzies (Evan Mock), Obie’s best friend and Audrey’s boyfriend.
The advent of Julien’s secret half-sister Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak) into their lives creates more jealousies, divided loyalties, sexual attractions, bluffs, double-bluffs and shenanigans than you can shake an iPhone at. (Thanks to the wise decision to break the original’s straight stranglehold, the possibilities for hook-ups and treacheries are almost infinite.) It is almost impossible to follow, but that never mattered with the original. This one could survive it, too, were it not for two major flaws.
One is a fatal earnestness, which dooms the endeavour from the off. Gone is the bouncy fleetness of the original. Instead, these are friends who pull each other up for peer-pressuring or fat-shaming or unkindness (before carrying on as before), puncturing all the bubbles and balloons that would otherwise keep the thing aloft. Obie is one of the “guilty rich” and does charity work. Julien is the leader because she is kind. I mean – what?
It is not that these things in themselves are bad. But if you are going to remake a show at a time and for an audience that needs these circumscriptions, don’t choose Gossip Girl. Its raison d’etre was the unspeakable joy of watching people relish in lives buttressed by more money than you knew existed, drinking martinis at 16 at impossibly glamorous clubs, and the exquisite catharsis (or schadenfreude) of seeing awful people being awful to each other in gloriously pitiless ways.
As well as the tone, Gossip Girl II is hamstrung by its content. Someone, somewhere made the choice to bring in adults. The original had a few parents (and Blair’s factotum/henchwoman Dorota Kishlovsky, played by Zuzanna Szadkowski, of blessed memory) to provide B-plots and give the juvenile cast a moment to memorise the next outlandish script. This puts them on an almost equal footing – and in the most insane way possible.
The teachers, led by Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson, once the closest thing to a real-life gossip girl there was; she would be a brilliant piece of casting if she were not a graduate of the E Hurley School of the Undramatic Arts), are bullied by their students. They decide to resurrect the all-seeing gossip girl (again voiced by Bell) as a means of cowing the teens so that Kate and her colleagues may return to the business of making them “Barack Obamas instead of Brett Kavanaughs”. It is completely stupid in entirely the wrong way.
Here’s hoping Blair and co return soon to raze this thing to the ground with the power of their inimitable scorn.